Pain has bred pessimism.
Vanderbilt’s Jared Hawkins figured to get past the foot injury, which caused him to miss the final two games of last season and to undergo offseason surgery, and to be a force in this, his senior season.
Instead, the running back has watched more preseason practices than he has taken part in. The situation not only has cast doubt about his potential to play and contribute in Saturday’s season-opener against Western Carolina but for the entire season.
“He’s been in, his foot gets sore and I have no answer for that,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “Medically, we have no answer for it. We’re just going to see if we can treat it and keep it as good as it can be.
“Right now, you just can’t say you can count on him.”
The truth is that Hawkins’ status makes it likely that three months from now he will join the ever-growing ranks of Commodores’ rushers whose careers have fizzled rather than flourished at the finish.
Since Corey Harris set the school’s single-season record with 1,103 yards as a senior in 1991, Vanderbilt backs who have shown early promise all have faded — or simply disappeared when logic says they should be at their best. The lone exception is Lew Thomas, who broke through for a team-high 688 yards as a senior in 2001 after being a role player the previous three years.
Most notable among the senior year letdowns was Jermaine Johnson, who became the program’s fourth all-time leading rusher in just three seasons. He rushed for 877 yards as a sophomore and then delivered the third (and most recent) 1,000-yard season in school history with 1,072 in 1995.
With that, he left school to enter the NFL draft — and did not get selected. Two other junior running backs were among the top 10 picks that season — Lawrence Phillips (sixth overall) and Tim Biakabatuka (eighth overall).
Now entering his own senior year as Vanderbilt’s running back, Hawkins understands the value of experience.
“Knowing that you’ve done this in the past, you should feel more comfortable being out on the field (as a senior),” Hawkins said. “Pass protection, it definitely helps as far as a knowledge standpoint. Just understanding what fronts defenses are running, recognizing when a linebacker is coming before the play is snapped and then just running the ball.”
Yet that knowledge has not led to the expected production.
Since Johnson, any number of things has happened to those who showed promise as underclassmen, but the result has been the same. Rather than benefit from three years of experience, coaches have had to reload at the position a year earlier than expected.
Of course there was the tragedy of Kwane Doster, who was shot and killed in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., just a few weeks after the conclusion of his junior season. It should be noted, though, that after Doster rushed for 798 yards earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2002 he produced a total of 813 yards in his next two seasons combined.
Hawkins certainly is not the first to limp into his senior season. Last fall, for example, Jeff Jennings capped his career, which included multiple knee surgeries, with a mere 80 yards rushing.
“It’s been hard having to do rehab and not being able to go 100 percent like I want to,” Hawkins said, “but … I can’t really worry about the things I couldn’t do that I wanted to, so I just have to focus on what I have and continue to work hard.”
Who’ll be next in line?
Even Frank Mordica, the school’s all-time leading rusher, tailed off slightly in the conclusion of his career. He rushed for 1,065 yards with an average of 6.2 yards per attempt and eight touchdowns as a junior in 1978, then dropped to 830, 5.1 and six, respectively, in his senior season.
If the senior Hawkins can’t carry the load over the next 12 weeks, there are two freshmen — Zac Stacy and Warren Norman — who are in position to take their shot. Each has shown speed and shiftiness throughout preseason camp and together they have created optimism for the long-term future of the running game.
The best-case scenario would be for Hawkins to get the bulk of the carries and for those other two to ease into their roles with limited playing time.
“To be really great, you have to have some people to spell (Hawkins),” Johnson said. “You just can’t play every play. We feel good about the guys working with him and getting in there.
“Not only are they spelling him, they’re pushing him a little bit right now.”
The feeling is probably similar to when Rodney Williams led Vanderbilt in rushing with 645 yards in 1998 and 644 yards in 1999 — his freshman and sophomore seasons.
When Williams was injured as a junior, senior Jared McGrath had a team-high 527 yards. Still, that was the third-best single-season total of McGrath’s career.
Even with the injury, Hawkins displayed an upward turn last season with a team-high 593 rushing yards, which was slightly more than his first two seasons’ combined. His yards per carry average dipped for the second straight year, though, but the number of carries was more than double either of the previous two seasons.
It was enough to create the impression that the best is yet to come.
“He’s paid his dues,” Johnson said. “He put in the work and it would be great for him to get a great year out of this.”
Not only that, it would be unusual.