VU's Norman has SEC return record… for now

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 8:23pm

Warren Norman has the new SEC single-season return yardage record. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Based on recent history, there is little reason to think that Warren Norman will hold the Southeastern Conference’s single-season, kickoff return yards record for long.

For now, though, it’s his.

The Vanderbilt freshman became the third player in as many seasons to set that mark when he had 99 yards on five returns during Saturday’s 27-3 loss at Florida. That gave him 951 – 46 more than the previous record – with two games remaining.

“This is a storied conference,” VU coach Bobby Johnson said late last week. “You have some great players who have been through here. If you have a record in this league, you’ve done something.”

In this case, it’s something that was done each of the previous two seasons as well.

In 1994, Kentucky’s Kio Sanford had 820 yards on kickoff returns. At the time, that was enough for him to set the record, which Vanderbilt’s Tony Jackson established two years earlier.

Sanford’s standard stood until 2007 when Florida’s Brandon James (841 yards) and Vanderbilt’s D.J. Moore (823) both surpassed it, and South Carolina’s Chris Culliver (809) threatened it.

Last season, Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson rolled up 905 yards on kickoff returns, and Culliver had 821. Thus, five of the top six single-season totals at the start of this season were produced in the previous two years.

Johnson needed 41 returns — also an SEC single-season record — to extend the record. Norman has a chance to surpass that one as well but has reached his current figure on just 35 attempts.

“(Norman) has gutted some mid-level ones and he’s gotten whacked a couple times on some short ones,” Johnson said. “It comes with the territory.

“He seems to relish the job. A lot of them, they don’t want to go in there and hit that hole real hard because those guys are running really fast down there to get you. He does. He doesn’t mind that at all.”

It only became his job in the second half of the second game, when Jamie Graham got hurt. That night he returned three for 56 yards at LSU and since has topped 100 yards in four games with two others of 99 yards.

His three kickoff returns for touchdowns already has matched another conference record and has left him one short of a career mark.

The conference’s record for kickoff return yards in a career is 2,498, set by Mississippi State’s Derek Pegues over a four-year career, which ended last fall.

Provided he stays healthy and remains the Commodores’ kickoff return man over the next three seasons, that record ought to be well within Norman’s reach as well.

“If you do it right and protect him, I don’t think it’s that much more dangerous than punt return or catching the ball over the middle, or if you have the ball under your arm running a sweep and some guy’s coming at you full speed,” Johnson said. “ … I think he’ll be in that role for his whole career.”

It remains to be seen whether he can remain in the record books that long.