“We’re going to go in a different direction.”
“We don’t think you fit our play style.”
“You’re just not big enough.”
He still does today. The 5-foot-6, 178-pound running back was a polarizing player during his recruiting process, and as he enters into his first season of NFL Draft eligibility, he’s sure to hear these opinions again.
But when those doubts come up in conversation, Vaughn can do what he’s done his whole life: point to the tape.
In 2021, no running back in the FBS had a higher PFF rushing grade than Vaughn at 93.2. His 1,404 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, 5.97 yards-per-carry average and 108 yards per game were all top-10 in the country. He was a First-Team All-American, a Doak Walker semifinalist and PFF’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
“I’ve never been the biggest kid on the football field,” Vaughn told PFF. “This is all I know: Being the smallest guy on the field, I had to tell myself, ‘You can either dwell on the fact that you're the smallest or you can use it to your advantage,' and that's exactly what I've tried to do every single time I step on the field.”
In order to truly turn what many see as a negative into a positive, Vaughn invests in his craft with a consistent work ethic. He doesn’t focus on what he can’t change — he focuses on what he can: footwork for quickness; lateral agility, change of direction and sprint drills for long speed; and core strength for elite contact balance.
One of the keys to consistency is your surroundings. Thankfully for Vaughn, football has been a part of his life from Day 1. Deuce’s father, Chris, was a longtime assistant coach in college football for programs including Arkansas, Ole Miss, Memphis and Texas over the span of 18 years.
“I fell in love football from a very, very early age, and to have that type of just day-to-day basis of my dad being a coach, going to SEC games, Arkansas, Ole Miss, getting to see a team like Alabama, getting to see a player like Cam Newton, just falling in love with the game in that aspect,” Vaughn said. “But getting to see the behind the scenes as well. Allowing me to go into the training facilities, going into the meetings and going into the locker rooms and seeing these 18- to 24-year-old kids playing at a high level was something that I wanted to do growing up, and my love for the game grew.”
In addition to his father’s college football background, Deuce’s dad has also spent time as a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. Being on both sides of recruiting and scouting, Deuce’s father has been a huge resource when it comes to explaining what Vaughn needs to study and learn and what schools and scouts want to see. That has helped Vaughn focus his energy where he needs to the most.
From learning to backpedal at age 7 to screaming and cheering pre-Heisman Cam Newton scoring a touchdown in the wildcat package in person, Vaughn’s timeline has never been short of motivation for the game of football. He’s met players like Quandre Diggs and others who have been their own example for Vaughn of playing at the highest level.
“I grew up and you see these players that are playing in the NFL, they're performing every single weekend. Understanding that there's a blueprint — understanding the amount of work that you have to put in to make sure that whenever it's time to go and play, you can play as fast as possible without thinking,” Vaughn said. “You understand that you've put in all the work that needs to be done. And now you get to go and have fun.”
Vaughn certainly looks like he’s having fun out there. His 1,404 rushing yards last season were the fourth-most in a single season in school history. Ironically, in the Kansas State record books, the player Vaughn is chasing is the one most will want to compare him to as a future pro: Darren Sproles.
Sproles owns the career (4,979), single-season (1,986) and single-game (292) rushing records at Kansas State. Sproles also faced size concerns, showing up to the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine at 5-foot-6, 187 pounds. He went on to play 15 years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and making three Pro Bowls.
“I got to meet Darren this past season,” Vaughn said. “He came to the Oklahoma game and he talked to us during our Thursday practice, just about the way that he ran the football in practice and in the NFL and just gave me some tips and things on how he took care of his body: things like how as a smaller guy he took care of his body, how he was able to have that longevity, and just the things that he went through.
“I got his number — he's somebody I’ll be able to contact because he's the blueprint for a guy like me. You see all these things he's done, and so to get to talk to him, get to meet him, that was big-time.”
If Vaughn can repeat the stats he recorded this past season, he’ll close in on putting his name right behind Sproles’ in the Kansas State record books. But whether it’s career stats, six straight 100-yard games to end the season or even the team wins, Vaughn keeps his head level and eyes on the prize.
He does so with a powerful phrase he continues he constantly goes back to: “Never be seduced by success.”
“At Kansas State, we have a motivational coach, Ben Newman, who comes in, and he texts me daily: motivational quotes, just being in my corner for everything, calling him texting him, and have a conversation with him about life, football and everything in between,” Vaughn said. “He gave me that quote: ‘Never be seduced by success.' It’s something I've carried with me ever since I heard it from him. And it's something that I love. Every time your feet hit the ground in the morning it’s a reminder that, hey, you haven't arrived, in a sense you have so much more work to do.”
Vaughn will surely enter 2022 on the Doak Walker Watch List. For some, he’ll be on the Heisman Watch List as well. As the football season unfolds, so will the NFL draft hype.
Others will think of Vaughn as a nice story — a good college back but not a player to invest in at the pro level.
He’s heard that before.
“One team is going to take a chance on me,” Vaughn said. “And that’s all I need.”