For football prospects growing up in Gainesville, there’s a natural motivation or pride associated with earning a scholarship offer from the hometown Florida Gators.
The 2012 Gainesville High School team had one such player as wide receiver Chris Thompson would land an offer from former Gators’ coach Will Muschamp and his staff.
Teammate Ralph Webb would not.
This has been a storyline every time Webb and Vanderbilt played Florida the last few years, but at this point the standout running back has no reason to look back or wonder what might have been.
He’s on pace to break the Commodores’ career rushing record later this season. He’s leading the SEC with 472 rushing yards through four games and he gets another chance to show the Gators what they missed as Florida visits Vanderbilt this Saturday.
“I don’t think he’s regretting it at this moment. He’s arguably the greatest running back in Vanderbilt history,” said Cedderick Daniels, who was a defensive assistant and the recruiting coordinator at Gainesville High during Webb’s high school career.
Daniels, now the head coach across town at Eastside High, keeps in touch with Webb every so often and is not surprised by what the redshirt-junior has done in piling up 2,531 career rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Webb is third on Vanderbilt’s all-time rushing list and needs 613 yards to break Zac Stacy’s school record.
As a high school prospect, he was overshadowed by a couple more high-profile rushers in the state: Kelvin Taylor and Derrick Henry. The Gators already zeroed in on Taylor and he would rush for 1,035 yards and 13 touchdowns last year at Florida before joining the San Francisco 49ers as a sixth-round draft pick.
“He was a special young man,” Daniels said of Webb. “He was probably top five in the state of Florida, but he came out in a class with Kelvin Taylor and Derrick Henry in front off him. Ralph ran for (2,020 yards and 28 touchdowns as a high school senior) and he was an underrated back. …
“Ralph’s only knock was probably honestly not going to camps enough because everybody recruits a year ahead. For him to come on late, for a top-tier team, it’s kind of hard because they had Kelvin on their radar (already).”
Webb was not available for an interview this week, but Daniels said the running back did not outwardly make a big deal at the time about not being recruited by the hometown Gators, even if it fueled some extra motivation within him.
Really, Florida wasn’t the only one overlooking the running back. As Gainesville High’s recruiting coordinator, Daniels was in charge of reaching out to college recruiters and sending out highlights of the team’s prospects.
Before Vanderbilt came in with its offer, Daniels said Webb’s best offer was from Minnesota, with Florida Atlantic also high on his list.
“He’s a humble guy and he would never openly say, ‘I wish Florida would offer me.’ It was like, ‘I’m going to make you pay,'” Daniels said. “I remember when everybody committed, him, Chris and Keith (Kelsey, a linebacker who would go to Louisville), they’re such competitors, they would sit there and argue who was going to have the better record their freshmen year, who was going to play more.”
While Vanderbilt was enjoying a brief resurgence under former coach James Franklin, the Commodores were far from an SEC contender. They were still in the SEC, though, and that swayed Webb’s decision.
“It was a chance for him to play in the SEC and to have a chance to play against his hometown school,” Daniels said.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, in his third season at the school, says he doesn’t think the Florida tie-in will be in the forefront of Webb’s thoughts Saturday, though.
Or, rather, he doesn’t think the opponent ever matters to Webb.
“I think there’s motivation every time Ralph steps on the field to play. He was a guy who wasn’t probably highly recruited coming out. You know, he takes the challenge every week whether it’s the Florida Gators or whether it’s any other team. I think he steps on the field with the same type of passion and energy,” Mason said this week. “Obviously, he’s a Gainesville product, so for him he knows a lot of guys on their team, he’s definitely very familiar with it, but I think for him it’s one game every week and this week is the Florida Gators so he’ll play hard.”
After redshirting in 2013, Webb broke out the following year while setting a Vanderbilt freshman record with 907 rushing yards in 212 carries. He followed that up with a Commodores sophomore record of 1,152 rushing yards last season, which was also the second-best season total in school history.
He rushed for 83 yards against the Gators as a redshirt-freshman, and then went for 118 yards against Florida last November while breaking off a 74-yard touchdown run in The Swamp as the Commodores led 7-6 until the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
“He took one, whatever, 70 against us last year, ran by us all. So I don’t know if he was running home, I don’t know if his house was that direction or what, but son of a gun was going faster than our guys, I know that,” Florida coach Jim McElwain joked this week.
Webb has the Gators’ full attention this week, that’s for sure.
“Obviously last year, we knew (about him) going in. He actually looks like he’s added some weight just looking on film,” McElwain said. “He runs great behind his pads and he keeps his feet moving. He’s hard to tackle and has explosive ability as well. … To me, he keys what they do.”
There’s no question about that.
Mason thinks Webb is even better than he was a year ago. He added that the running back approaches every practice, every play with a purpose.
But there’s not much left for him to prove at this point.
“Now being my third year with him, every year he’s added something to his game,” Mason said. “We asked him during the offseason this year to work on pass (protection) and continue to get better catching the ball out of the backfield, and I think he’s done those things. He tends to be more elusive now in the open field than he was two years ago. …
“He’s always working to put tools in his toolbox. His game becomes more complete every time he touches the grass so it’s been fun to watch his maturation process.”