One-armed Knife Sharpener
- Apr 7, 2013
By Saad Yousuf
Aug. 6, 2023
OXNARD, Calif. — In the Dallas Cowboys’ second practice in full pads Tuesday, the teams conducted a seven-on-seven session on the field right in front of the bleachers. Hundreds of fans decked out in Cowboys gear filled the stands, and dozens more were lined up against the fence.
At one point, rookie running back Deuce Vaughn caught a pass in the flat coming out of the backfield. A small group of fans cheered him on.
“You’re the people’s champ, Deuce!”
A few plays later, Vaughn ran a similar pattern but the ball went the other direction. As Vaughn eased up on his route and drifted past the sideline, more fans joined the group with a brief chant.
“People’s champ! People’s champ!”
“It gives you a lot of confidence to go out there and play the sport that you love when you have a lot of people behind you that believe in you and trust in you and want to see you succeed,” Vaughn said. “It makes you work a little bit harder. It’s really cool. One of those things that you don’t take for granted at all.”
Less than two weeks into his first NFL training camp, Vaughn has already racked up a wide range of experiences. It took less than three days for him to turn into an internet sensation when a video of him taking a handoff and running off tackle went viral because of his size.
There have been learning moments, on offense and special teams, including a muff when fielding kicks in practice Wednesday. The ups have far outweighed the downs thus far.
“Deuce is everything we thought he would be, in terms of his run instincts and his lack of stature, I’ll call it, which a lot of people view as a weakness, (but) he knows how to use it as a weapon,” Cowboys running backs coach Jeff Blasko said. “He gets lost (behind the offensive line), and that combined with his instincts, particularly in the run game, he does some really special things. Some unique things that, trust me, we’re not coaching. That’s obviously what we’re looking for. Guys that can create on their own and make things happen when things aren’t always roses and palm trees.”
Vaughn’s size is an easy fascination (he’s listed on the roster at 5-foot-6, 176 pounds). It’s amusing for fans to watch him run through gaps surrounded by mammoth offensive and defensive linemen towering over him. When talking to those around him, from Blasko to head coach Mike McCarthy to quarterback Dak Prescott, size is an unavoidable topic; it comes up organically. When you’re the shortest player to be measured at the combine since that information started being tracked in 2003, that’s to be expected.
But his coaches and teammates aren’t concerned with the internet memes or the lunchtime jokes. When they look at Vaughn’s size, they see how it can be an asset on Sundays.
“With his height, it’s going to be tough for guys to tackle (him),” Prescott said. “This is a league that guys don’t wrap up a lot so he’s going to bounce off of a lot of those with his great balance and then just being able to use his size to hide behind blocks and get into the holes. He’s going to be special.”
Vaughn has already shown to be as advertised in the running game, as much as one can during training camp practices. He’s been stellar with the fundamentals, knowing where to line up and which gaps to hit and finding cutback lanes when necessary.
“There are times even in these walk-throughs where I’m standing there back behind the drill and I lose vision on him,” Blasko said. “He just finds a way. He has those instincts and awareness to use (his size) as a weapon. Looking throughout his college career, he didn’t take a whole lot of big shots. Again, he just has a knack for understanding what’s taking place up front, and the conceptual awareness is above average.”
Another thing that’s been above average in the early showings has been Vaughn’s abilities in the passing game. His routes coming out of the backfield are crisp and his hands have been a sure thing. Whether it’s been Prescott, Cooper Rush or Will Grier throwing him the ball, Vaughn has shown the ability to get to the areas he needs to be at efficiently.
“He’s another receiver, probably one of the most natural pass catchers I can say that we have on our team,” Prescott said.
The pass-catching prowess is no accident, either. After the longest practice of camp Thursday, when the rest of the unit spilled into the locker room upon the conclusion of practice, Vaughn made his way to the other field to join a collection of receivers and tight ends to catch footballs from the Jugs machine. On Friday, the Cowboys only had a walk-through closed off to the public. After accommodating a few media interviews, Vaughn was back out on the field with the Jugs machine.
Pass protection is where there’s the greatest sense of intrigue with Vaughn. The training camp pace doesn’t offer an environment where those questions receive firm answers. That’s going to be one of the biggest things to watch in Vaughn’s preseason outings.
“Everybody’s going to bring up pass protection when it comes to my size,” Vaughn said. “It’s just one of those things that’s going to be seen as a weakness until I go out there and do something to make them say that’s not a weakness.”
Given what he’s seen of Vaughn from his college tape at Kansas State, Blasko is optimistic about that area of Vaughn’s game, too.
“Through the evaluation process in the draft, the first thing you’re looking for is a guy willing to close the distance and strike,” Blasko said. “That’s No. 1. If the willingness is there, you can fine-tune the fundamentals and the details within that. If the willingness isn’t there, then obviously that’s a red flag.”
There have been pass protection parts to Vaughn’s game that have stood out. McCarthy singled out an instance from the first padded practice Monday when Vaughn had a hot rusher coming off the edge, stepped right to him and picked it up. Of course, how that situation ends stopping the rusher from getting to the quarterback is something that will come through live action.
Dallas Cowboys running back Deuce Vaughn signs autographs. (Saad Yousuf / The Athletic)
Vaughn’s abilities on special teams add to his overall value for a potential roster spot. As a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft, nothing is guaranteed or promised. There is, however, a real opportunity for Vaughn to be one of the pieces that make up the Cowboys’ running back committee behind Tony Pollard. Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle have tenure, but their talent doesn’t separate them by much. Ronald Jones is an altogether different style of runner and will begin the season serving a two-game suspension. Every running back on the roster besides Vaughn is also entering a contract year.
The first step for Vaughn was to have a good start to training camp. Vaughn has been a highlight on the field, and he’s also soaking in the full scope of the experience that comes with being an NFL running back. Just as he’s been one of the last players on the field catching footballs, he’s also often been one of the last players signing autographs for fans, who have quickly gravitated toward him. In Vaughn, fans see a version of themselves, somebody who doesn’t have the factory build for an NFL player. Unlike most that look like him, Vaughn has worked hard to not just be in that setting, but to thrive in it.
“I knew it was going to be a grind,” Vaughn said. “It’s football at its peak. This is actual football heaven. You come out here and it’s football all day. You have the utmost resources, you have everything that you need to come out here and become the best football player that you can. So far, it’s exceeded expectations. I’m probably having the most fun playing football I’ve ever had in my life.”