Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb aims to take down the doubters in 2016
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ralph Webb relaxes in a golf cart near the back door of Vanderbilt's McGugin Center athletic complex. Nearby, a few of Webb's teammates litter the sideline of a green-turfed practice field. Three bulky linemen rest easy in cold tubs, while another glove-donned figure catches quick passes from a football staffer. At the moment Webb, Vanderbilt's redshirt junior running back, doesn't seem too concerned with football. On this balmy morning in June, he is busy describing his summer internship with Holiday Inn.
The beauty of the internship, Webb says, is the variety it offers: On one afternoon, he might shadow the front desk, learning the check-in process for guests. On another, Webb might tail the housekeeping supervisor as she meticulously inspects rooms on each floor. Once Webb even enjoyed a stint in the hotel kitchen, watching the staff prepare and serve meals to guests. Four days a week for five hours each day, Webb trades in his helmet and cleats for a shirt and tie, learning exactly why the customer is always right.
Forgive the nerdy Vanderbilt stereotype, but Webb, who minors in corporate strategies alongside his sociology major, plans to actually use his internship. "I always knew I wanted to own my own hotel," Webb says. "I feel like it's one of those businesses that you're going to need around all the time. It might have its ups and downs, but as far as the economy goes, it's always going to be there."
Webb knows a thing or two about dependability. For the past two seasons, he has been a steady-if-not-indispensible presence in his day job: running back in Vanderbilt's offense. The redshirt junior has started 24 consecutive games in the Commodores' backfield, and both of his two campaigns have been noteworthy. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Webb set a freshman single-season record for carries (212) and rushing yards (907). He followed with 1,152 rush yards in 2015, the most ever by a Vanderbilt sophomore and second-most overall in team history.
In a conference defined recently by accomplished running backs, Webb's skills have flown under the radar. But he has come to covet his role as perhaps the SEC's most undervalued player. "I've felt underrated since high school," Webb says. "I play with an edge because I've felt like that all my life."
That sizable chip on Webb's shoulder first sprouted in Gainesville, Fla., where he grew up the middle child of seven siblings—five brothers and one sister. He rushed for a whopping 2,020 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior at Gainesville High, earning team MVP honors after helping the Hurricanes reach the Class 6A state championship game for the first time in three decades.
When college coaches began calling, a future just down the road at Florida seemed an ideal scenario for Webb, whose family bled blue and orange. He had witnessed three Gators national championships during his lifetime, one from Steve Spurrier and two from Urban Meyer, and he dreamed of becoming the next star back to bring national pride to his hometown school.
During his recruitment Webb attended camps under then-coach Will Muschamp's Florida staff, including the program's "Friday Night Lights" bonanza the summer before his senior year. But Webb's love for the Gators was unreciprocated as Florida never offered a scholarship to the Gainesville prospect. Instead, the likes of Boston College, Florida Atlantic and Minnesota vied for his services.
By late in his senior year, Webb had all but decided to commit to Minnesota, at one point even telling former Gophers coach Jerry Kill's staff to expect his commitment. But Vanderbilt and then-coach James Franklin lured Webb to Nashville for an official visit the weekend before National Signing Day in 2013. That Sunday, Webb pulled out his phone to call Kill and officially commit to the Gophers. Suddenly, Webb's screen lit up. "Right before I was about to call [Kill], coach Franklin Facetime'd me," Webb says. "Literally right before." Franklin offered Webb a scholarship.
Presented with an opportunity to play in the SEC, Webb committed to the Commodores on the spot, forever altering the family dynamic back in Gainesville. "We were Florida fans," he says, "but not anymore."
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Webb has made the most of his shot in the SEC, even amid a coaching change. Franklin bolted Nashville for Penn State after Webb's redshirt season in 2013, clearing the way for former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason to take over. But Webb didn't fret about his future; instead he saw an opportunity to impress a new staff on a wide-open depth chart. In his first year as a starter in 2014, only one other first-year player in the SEC—Georgia's Nick Chubb—rushed for more yards than Webb.
Last season, Webb developed more of a big-play ability. He rushed for 149 yards against Tennessee, the highest total by a Vanderbilt rusher against the in-state Volunteers in 40 years. Webb also notched a career-long 74-yard touchdown run against—who else?—Florida in the Swamp, where the 'Dores nearly engineered an upset in an eventual 9–7 loss.
"When you talk about Ralph Webb, that's music to my ears," Mason says. "He showed in year one, year two and heading into year three that he's a guy that can touch the ball as many times as you need him to touch it, and he's going to be steady."
Running backs coach Jeff Genyk joined the Commodores' staff in January, so he has yet to coach Webb in a game. But Webb's film already has Genyk licking his chops. The coach, who worked at Northwestern from 1994–2003, likens the redshirt junior to former Wildcats back Damien Anderson, who rushed for 2,063 yards during the 2000 season and became a Heisman Trophy finalist. "Ralph reminds me a little bit of [Anderson] with the ability to accelerate, have good vision and occasionally run away from a defender without really making a move," Genyk says.
Webb has worked to be a more elusive runner this off-season. Vanderbilt's staff already loves his ability to break through the first and second levels of a defense; it's the third level, where safeties and corners await, in which Webb can capitalize. The 'Dores want their bell-cow back to "take that play that's blocked for 10 or 12 yards and make it a 40- or 50-yard run," Genyk says. Webb has taken that standard to heart, studying the back-end of defenses to better anticipate pressure in the secondary.
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An even bigger goal for Webb comes in the classroom. He will be a senior academically in the fall, only a few credits short of becoming the first in his immediate family to graduate from a four-year university. An SEC Academic Honor Roll honoree the past two seasons, Webb opted to broaden his own horizons even further last May. In a meeting with his guidance counselor, Webb learned about opportunities to study abroad, which immediately piqued his interest. He scanned a list of destinations before one in particular stood out: a two-week jaunt to Australia, where Webb would become immersed in the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. Mason and Vanderbilt's coaching staff even encouraged the running back to pack his bags.
No one in Webb's immediate family had ever ventured outside the United States, but he didn't hesitate. He joined classmates for a 10-day crash-course summer session in Nashville to bone up on the ecosystems of Australia. Then the group departed for Down Under last May, spending two weeks snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef and taking night walks through the rainforest, sporting flashlights atop their heads. Webb even took a helicopter ride high above the reef, a sight that gave the small-town kid from Gainesville a true taste of nature. "That was probably one of the highlights," he says.
Webb's trip abroad added another element to the package he projects at Vanderbilt: hard-nosed player on the field and determined, eager student off of it. Webb embodies the consummate student-athlete, but he has plenty more goals on the athlete side of that title. "I think you have to win," Genyk says, "to be really appreciated." The Commodores have gone 7–17 during the last two seasons, though they notched two SEC wins during an improved 4–8 campaign last year. Still, in a conference loaded with talent, that record isn't enough to lift Webb into the league's top tier of players.
But Webb and the 'Dores are bullish about the pieces in place this fall. Quarterback Kyle Shurmer started five of the final six games as a true freshman in 2015 and looked like the program's future, but junior Wade Freebeck ended spring still in the mix. Webb will be the top rusher in a deeper group of backs that includes Josh Crawford, Dallas Rivers and converted linebacker Khari Blasingame. Combined with a healthier receiving corps, the Commodores hope to improve an offense that limped to 13th in the SEC in scoring (15.2 points per game) in 2015. Vandy's surprisingly stingy defense will rattle a few SEC opponents; the unit returns seven starters, not including skilled linebacker Nigel Bowden, who missed most of 2015 due to injury.
Back in the golf cart, Webb glances at his teammates on the practice field as the sun peeks over the east side of the McGugin Center. He shakes his head. Vanderbilt is so close to surprising the rest of the SEC, he contends. Last season the Commodores fell to Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina by an average of 7.3 points. In all they finished 3–3 in one-score games, a record that still leaves Webb wondering what if? "One less turnover here, a catch here, a catch there, a run here, a run there, and we win the game," Webb says.
Winning, first and foremost, is what Webb hopes will define the back-end of his college career. But after setting a standard as a record-breaker in Nashville, Webb also envisions a rewrite of his own Commodores legacy. "I'm definitely going for an all-time great here," he says.
Perhaps then Webb will earn a little respect.