HOOVER, Ala. — Here at the palatial Wynfrey Hotel, football players and coaches in attendance at SEC Media Days have 11 different stops at which they provide answers to various newspapers, websites and broadcasters.
Different rooms produce different questions. And, in the case of Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb, different answers.
“I let my tape speak for itself,” he told a group of reporters when asked about the lack of fanfare surrounding his 37 consecutive starts and 3,347 career rushing yards.
By the time Webb walked into the main interview room, he was no longer allowing his tape to speak for itself.
“I think I’m the best running back in the nation,” he said.
“Film. Stats. Consistency don’t lie,” Webb said. “I’ve never missed a game.”
Webb is the conference’s only player who currently holds a school record for career rushing yards or single-season rushing yards (he owns both at Vandy). The Gainesville, Fla., native is 20th on the all-time SEC rushing list, and needs only 1,244 more yards to join Herschel Walker, Darren McFadden, Kevin Faulk and Bo Jackson in the Top 5.
In the words of Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, “He’s back and Vanderbilt’s history is done. He’s chasing SEC history.”
So, why isn’t Webb receiving the same love as, say, Georgia’s Nick Chubb?
Any SEC fan knows the answer is the black-and-gold uniform Webb wears. Vanderbilt is rarely a hot media commodity — regardless of whether its star offensive player is chasing Herschel Walker — and the Commodores have enough trouble winning over their own city, let alone an entire region.
“He’s the back that nobody talks about, but all he does is perform,” Mason said. “You put him on a stage, and he’s going to be big.”
There were some attention-grabbing performances last year, most notably in a pair of late-season upsets of Ole Miss and Tennessee when Webb collected a combined 237 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns.
But he didn’t make much of an impression on the Volunteers; defensive tackle Kendal Vickers and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley both admitted Monday they didn’t remember any Webb-specific game planning. Tuesday, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith called Webb “special” but didn’t offer any specific praise.
When Bulldogs running back Sony Michel was asked to name some of the conference’s best players, he landed on Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and LSU’s Derrius Guice before drawing a blank. No Webb.
It’s old hat for the senior Commodores captain.
“I am fine with that,” Webb said. “I am used to it. I have been underrated my whole life, throughout high school, I felt that I was underrated. So I use that as motivation and play with a chip on my shoulder.”
‘What he says matters’
Webb grew up infatuated with his hometown Florida Gators, the middle child of seven siblings. He was born two years before Steve Spurrier brought the program its first national title in 1996, and he watched in middle school as Urban Meyer delivered two more rings.
At Gainesville High, Webb was a weight-room warrior (he could do 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press), a dedicated student and a teacher-friendly kid who was quick to respond with “no, sir,” or “no, ma’am.” Former running backs coach Steve Bauer recalled Webb visiting him in his home several days in a row to check in on Bauer after hip replacement surgery.
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“He was more worried about me than any of his buddies,” Bauer told SEC Country.
His gridiron prowess matched his manners. As a senior, Webb racked up more than 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Florida never gave him an offer.
To this day, Bauer can’t believe “Raphael” didn’t garner more interest from the Gators, who still have not had an individual rusher reach the 1,200-yard mark since 2004.
“I think the Gators know it now,” Bauer told SEC Country. “Give me 22 Ralph Webbs, and I’m winning the national title.”
(Webb rushed for 110 yards vs. the Gators last autumn, and scored a 74-yard touchdown in front of friends and family as a sophomore. This year’s Vanderbilt-Florida game is in Gainesville on Sept. 30.)
After a disappointing recruiting period, Webb was seconds from calling Minnesota coach Jerry Kill to make his commitment in February 2013 when Vanderbilt coach James Franklin sent him a FaceTime request, per Tony Barnhart of Gridiron Now. The last-ditch pitch worked, and Webb signed with the Commodores.
He redshirted as Franklin put together a second consecutive 9-win team, and then hit the field as Vanderbilt’s starting running back for Mason in 2014.
Since then, every Commodores starting lineup has featured the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Webb in the backfield. Away from football, he’s studied sociology and corporate strategies while building an extensive portfolio of extracurricular activities. His teammates saw him as an effective enough leader to vote him captain as a junior last Fall.
Some teammates — including quarterback Kyle Shurmur — note that Webb doesn’t speak much. But linebacker Oren Burks shares a living space with Webb (“he’s a pretty clean roommate … he does the dishes”), and insisted that Webb’s introspective nature should not be confused with weakness.
“He’s very selective with what he says,” Burks said. “So what he says matters.”
As the numbers currently stand, Webb is 1,913 yards from passing Walker as the SEC’s most prolific rusher of all-time. It’s unlikely he will average the 147.2 yards per game (if Vanderbilt plays 13 contests) needed, but not unprecedented. Alabama’s Derrick Henry and LSU’s Leonard Fournette both topped the 1,900 mark in 2015.
Webb isn’t one of those players who pretends he doesn’t know his place in history.
“It’s in the back of my mind,” Webb said. “I definitely know it.”
Most would scoff at Webb’s chances, but the running back does have some allies in the SEC-wide media pool. Former Commodores quarterback — and current SEC Network broadcaster — Jordan Rodgers heard Webb’s comments and smiled.
“Love it,” he told SEC Country. “That’s what Vandy is. For Vandy to be successful, every player in that locker room has to have a chip on their shoulder and they have to feel that it’s them against the world, which, usually it is. Vanderbilt doesn’t need people to believe in them from the outside. It needs to come from the locker room.”
Burks agreed, saying Webb is special enough to force his way into headlines.
“I think with a lot of Vanderbilt players, you don’t know all our names. We don’t have a big star,” Burks said. “Ralph is one of those guys who’s a freak athlete. He’s like a 500-pound squatter. His bench is ridiculous. Power clean. Vert. You name it. Once you get to pro day, he’s gonna be a guy that’s like this guy is a freak athletically.”
If Webb continues his high level of production, he won’t need attention from the media, anyhow; the SEC record books will print his name plenty.
“He wants to be a Top 5 running back in this conference,” Mason said. “He’s got his own set of goals. And if I know Ralph Webb like I think I do, he’s probably going to wind up accomplishing them.”