Kansas State football must get the ball to Deuce Vaughn. The question is how — and how often

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal

MANHATTAN — If there is one area of certainty when it comes to Kansas State's offense, it is the agreement that for the Wildcats to be successful in 2021, they have to get the ball to Deuce Vaughn.

The only question: How and how often?

Ask Vaughn, the Wildcats' breakout star at running back last year as a true freshman, and the answer to the second question is simple.

"I'm ready to go," he said with a smile. "As many touches as they'll give me, every single time I touch the ball, I'm ready to go.

"If that's 25 or if that's 10, I'm ready to go to play."

If only it were that simple. As dynamic a talent as he is — 642 yards rushing and 5.2 per carry, a team-high 25 catches for 434 yards and seven kickoff returns with a 20-yard average — his coaches worry about just how much punishment his 5-foot-6, 173-pound body can absorb, especially over a 12-game season.

Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn runs for a first down against Texas Tech last Oct. 3 in Manhattan. Vaughn was the Big 12 freshman of the year last season.

Last year he averaged 15.5 touches in 10 games as a rusher, receiver and return man. Head coach Chris Klieman has said before 25 might be an optimum number of touches. Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham added that just the threat of Vaughn on the field is valuable.  

"We have to use him, even if it’s not always handing it to him, or not always throwing it to him," Messingham said. "Everybody knows that, from a skill standpoint on our offense, he has the skill set to pretty much do everything.

"So if we motion him out to an outside receiver, they have to use a good player to cover him. They can't just say, ‘Oh, take your (middle linebacker) out there and cover it,’ because that's a great matchup for us if they do that. So, even if we're not handing it to him or throwing it to him, he can still be a guy they have to defend, and that helps us.”

For his part, Vaughn was accustomed to being a workhorse before arriving at K-State. As a senior at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, he rushed for a school-record 1,940 yards, including 406 yards in one game.

"There were games that I would have 40 touches in high school — maybe 32 carries and six catches," Vaughn said. "I remember games like that — maybe three out of like 11 games.

"But it was above 25 almost every game, and I feel like that's really kind of helped me be able to withstand whenever I do take a big hit, and really put into perspective. Whenever you get done with the game, Monday through Friday, you need to go in the cold tub and you get the compressions. You do everything you can to make sure your body's feeling great for Saturday."

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Because of his size, Vaughn also has learned to minimize the impact when he does get hit.

"Really as I've played football and as I've gotten older — and I know that I'm not a big guy — I've been able to kind of shy off of some big hits, stuff like that," Vaughn said. "Be able to contort my body to the point where I'm not taking huge hits.

"It's really helped throughout my career."

Klieman also sees a difference in Vaughn the sophomore. Last year, not only was he thrust into a starring role as a true freshman, but during a pandemic to boot.

"(He's) much more confident," Klieman said. "He was a real confident freshman as it was, but just the amount of reps, the amount of pictures that he's seen, the amount of carries he's had as well as receptions and stuff.

"You can tell he's settled in, feels so comfortable within the offense — has learned a lot of the nuances of our offense as well as the pictures that a defense has shown. So we're thrilled that deuce is an integral part of our offense and obviously we need to find ways to get him the football."

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Ah, yes. Getting him the ball.

Now that he's a marked man — freshman All-American in two publications and Big 12 freshman of the year in a vote by league coaches — creating opportunities becomes an even greater challenge.

But Vaughn isn't worried.

"I feel like Coach Mess is doing a great job," he said. "I'm super excited because we have a great offensive coordinator and a great staff around him with coach (Brian) Anderson (running backs), coach (Conor) Riley (offensive line), coach (Collin) Klein (quarterbacks) and coach (Jason) Ray (tight ends).

"They're all in communication with me every single day, like 'How do you feel about this, how do you feel about that?' and then go rep it. If it looks good, feels good, then we're ready to go, and I feel that they're doing a fantastic job."

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Quarterback Skylar Thompson, who suffered a season-ending injury in the third game last year, can't wait to have a full season sharing the backfield with Vaughn.

"I'm excited," Thompson said. "I think we all know Deuce is a really, really special player and I think that he's just gotten better this offseason and has really perfected his craft in little aspects that, just having a year under his belt and some experience has benefitted him.

"We've got to find ways of getting him the ball, and whatever that may look like, we've got to get him touches and get him in spaces is and let him be Deuce. The biggest thing for him and what I'm going to encourage him and I have, he doesn't have to be a superstar, he just needs to be himself and let the game come to him and make plays when they're presented."