When the Dallas Cowboys moved on from Ezekiel Elliott in March, the expectation was 2023 would bring Tony Pollard a well-deserved opportunity to serve as the team's bell-cow running back.
After spending the past several seasons in a platoon with Elliott, Pollard, fresh off a breakout season, looked primed to take on a featured role in Dallas' backfield, facing little competition for touches from the smaller, depth additions the Cowboys made to their running backs room.
Well, one of those small additions, in both fanfare and stature, is winning over fans, coaches, teammates and perhaps some touches too.
While Pollard is certainly not at risk of being supplanted as the lead back, Deuce Vaughn, who was at one point an afterthought among Dallas' diverse arsenal of weapons, is certainly pushing for a role of his own.
Vaughn, who is listed at 5-foot-5, 179 pounds, is no stranger to quickly turning heads. That's exactly what he did when he arrived at Kansas State in 2020 as a three-star recruit. For those who observed the Arkansas native's development through college, his immediate impact in Dallas was to be expected.
“It’s not a surprise to me at all because I know when he came [to Kansas State] as a freshman, he was ready to go,” Brian Anderson, Vaughn's running backs coach at Kansas State, told Yahoo Sports. “His football knowledge, his football maturity, his preparation, it’s off the charts. He understands that a guy of his size has to do things the right way.”
With his suboptimal size, Vaughn is forced to lean on other areas of his game to compensate. While Anderson noted that Vaughn has become known for "doing things the right way" in every facet of football, the mental side is where he shines brightest.
“He has a really good idea of defensive alignment. He understands gaps … He has this uncanny ability to see a picture and then make it happen,” Anderson said. “There’s been many times in the three years [at Kansas State] where he would see something on the field and say, ‘Coach, can we do this?’ And next thing you know, it’s a touchdown because of what he saw."
Now, in the NFL, Vaughn continues to impress.
“He played very well,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters after Vaughn ran for 50 yards and a touchdown on eight carries in the team's preseason opener Saturday. “I thought he had a heck of a night. It was a great introduction to the NFL."
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) August 12, 2023
The initial intrigue around the Cowboys' sixth-round draft pick had little to do with anything other than his atypical size. The 21-year-old looked to be potentially on the roster bubble, competing for one of two or three backup spots with fellow running backs Ronald Jones, Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle. But with Jones suspended and Davis struggling, the door has opened for Vaughn to do a lot more than just make the team, especially with the relationship he has forged with Dak Prescott.
“He’s got some stuff. He’s special,” Prescott said of Vaughn via ESPN's Todd Archer. “He’s another receiver. One of the best, probably, pass-catchers or most natural pass-catchers I can say that we have on the team.”
Dak Prescott is fired up for Deuce Vaughn pic.twitter.com/9WiEfiwjhv
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 12, 2023
Thanks to his elusive, slippery running style and his underdog story, Vaughn has now captured the attention of more than just Dallas. A viral clip from the Cowboys' second padded practice put Vaughn on the map, and ever since, he has become this year's league-wide training camp darling.
No stranger to being counted out, though, Vaughn is taking nothing for granted. When asked what he proved with his performance on Saturday, he replied: “That I belong."
"I feel like that’s the biggest thing for myself, is just coming in and proving people that believed in me right,” Vaughn told reporters after the game. “And it doesn’t stop now."
In the end, that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality should serve Vaughn well as he seeks to carve out a meaningful role in the Cowboys' offense. And somehow, even his size might, too.
"The first thing I noticed standing behind the line is the first time we ran in a real team period in the padded work, defensive linemen can't find him," McCarthy said. "That's an asset and he knows it."