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When Deuce Vaughn runs onto the practice field in Oxnard, California, he does so to the soundtrack of Cowboys fans chanting his name. A handful of other veterans are used to similar treatment: Micah Parsons, Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, and so on. They are Pro Bowlers, superstars, potential Hall of Famers. At 5-foot-5, Vaughn is a sixth-round rookie running back trying to become one of the smallest players ever to carve out a career in the NFL. That makes him easy to spot and an easier underdog to root for.
But if your first instinct is to treat him as a novelty, just know that Vaughn is well-versed in upending expectations. During his four years at Kansas State, he blossomed from a curiosity into one of the most productive running backs in college football, racking up nearly 5,000 career all-purpose yards and becoming a two-time All-American in just three collegiate seasons. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Vaughn is already fighting for the No. 2 spot behind Tony Pollard on a wide-open running back depth chart.
The last time the Cowboys’ running back room was this unsettled was the 2015 offseason, just prior to Darren McFadden’s outlier 1,000-yard rushing season. Pollard is cemented as the top back and his career average of 5.1 yards per carry demonstrates a proven capacity to make big plays. But his career-high in touches for a season is just 232, and he was never a bell-cow back in college at Memphis, either. Behind Pollard, veteran Ronald Jones is no lock to make the roster and wasn’t so even prior to his two-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing-drug policy. The problem the Cowboys need to solve is who, after Pollard, is going to get touches. For that matter, with ex-Pro Bowlers Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, and old friend Ezekiel Elliott lingering on the free-agent market, is that player even in camp right now?
A trio of young backs—second-year Malik Davis, fourth-year Rico Dowdle, and Vaughn—are trying to prove that the solution is already in the locker room.
During the first couple of days of padded practices, Vaughn was taking most of his reps with the second and third teams, highlighted by a gorgeous spin move that earned oohs and ahhs from the gallery and went viral on social media. By the end of the week Vaughn stepped into reps with the first team, taking carries away from Davis and Dowdle. The trend has continued in the second week of pads.
Mike McCarthy hasn’t been shy about praising all of the backs in his “young room.” On Tuesday, he called Davis a “very, very natural runner” and complimented Dowdle as having had “probably the most impressive pass pro pickups of camp.” He’s similarly effusive with Vaughn.
“After going through the draft, doing our installs, and now getting ready for the season, Deuce is a guy that was top of my mind going into summer,” McCarthy said before the Cowboys’ first padded practice. “I think it’s important that we get Deuce some balls.”
Now that they have, the Cowboys coaching staff has been treated to a running style that’s been likened to that of an untackleable toddler, although Vaughn believes his skill set is considerably more refined.
“I’d define my game as versatile,” he says. “My strength is catching the ball out of the backfield. I can also run routes from the slot—I feel that was the biggest thing I brought to the table at Kansas State, and I plan to do the same here.”
Vaughn received plenty of pre-draft comparisons to Darren Sproles, a fellow Kansas State product who piled up nearly 20,000 all-purpose yards in his NFL career at 5-foot-6. The comparison is not without merit. Yes, Vaughn is shifty. And yes, Vaughn has the ability to be a weapon in the passing game. But unlike Sproles, Vaughn has minimal experience in the return game—and if Pro Bowler KaVontae Turpin continues to shine in that spot, the Cowboys won’t need to expose Vaughn to that beating.
Vaughn’s stocky build, low center of gravity, and running style more closely resemble a different NFC East rusher: the Eagles’ Boston Scott. Both Vaughn and the 5-foot-6 Scott are built like fire hydrants, and despite their lack of height, both backs pack a punch as runners. The Cowboys rookie has all the goods to tote the ball between the tackles, just as Scott does in Philly—after all, it’s hard for defenders to spot a guy who is a foot shorter than the blockers. That ability has kept the 28-year-old Scott in the league for five seasons and counting after being drafted in the sixth round like Vaughn back in 2018. If Vaughn can someday match that, it would be a positive outcome for player and team alike.
For now, though, he is focused on maximizing his first NFL camp. He talks about taking care of his body, about “being a sponge” around Pollard, about limiting his mistakes. Most of all, he wants to learn—not only his assignments themselves but the meaning behind them.
“I’m really focused on diving into the ‘why’ within the playbook,” Vaughn says. “Why does the running back execute this plan on this play? Why am I running this route? If I’m trying to open up a play behind me while blocking, what are my steps and how do I execute? I’m just trying to slow things down by understanding everything I can.”
That will take time, as will his ongoing acclimation to the NFL. With Dowdle and Davis ahead of him on the team’s first depth chart, it could take a bit for Vaughn’s number to be called in Saturday’s preseason opener against Jacksonville. But if history is any indication, it’s that Vaughn might surprise once he does jog onto the field. And that he may hear a chant or two along the way.
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Ben Swanger is the managing editor for D CEO, the business title for D Magazine. Ben manages the Dallas 500, monthly…