Ralph Webb knew to go high. His brain momentarily shut off, but instincts took his feet off the ground
Three seconds left. Down 24-17. Ball at the 2-yard line. With a game, a season and possibly his coach's job at stake, Vanderbilt's 5-foot-10, 202-pound running back snared a handoff, took a couple of steps and then leapt over diving Western Kentucky safety Branden Leston from just inside the 4-yard line. Outstretched and perfectly parallel to the ground, Webb plunged head-first into the end zone.
Tie game. End of regulation.
"We decided to run, Ralph made it right, and the rest is history," head coach Derek Mason said.
Truth is, Webb wasn't Mason's first choice. Actually, he wasn't his second choice either. But when presented the opportunity to call a third play in a matter of minutes -- thanks to back-to-back Hilltoppers timeouts -- Webb became the right choice.
Mason had two passes ready to go, but fate intervened to put that football in Webb's stomach.
"Anytime you have a guy who you have the utmost confidence in, you sort of put your money on that guy. Ralph’s that guy for us," Mason said, looking back on the play that kept Vandy's hopes alive.
Thanks to Webb, a two-time high school state champion long-jumper with a 23-foot, 8-inch mark, Vandy strutted into overtime and left with a 31-30 win that kept its slim bowl hopes alive. Thanks to Webb, the Commodores have a legitimate go-to playmaker on offense.
Through three games, the junior leads the SEC with 472 rushing yards and is tied for first in the league with five rushing touchdowns. He's averaging a career-best 5.02 yards per carry and is second behind only Leonard Fournette in the SEC in rushing yards per game (118).
Small in stature, but big in ability, Webb might be the SEC's best player no one is talking about.
"He’s always working to put tools in his toolbox, and his game is becoming more complete every time he touches the grass," Mason said.
Through two-plus seasons, Webb has amassed 2,531 rushing yards, which is fourth behind Fournette (3,373), Georgia's Nick Chubb (2,716) and Tennessee's Jalen Hurd (2,552) among active SEC running backs. Webb will enter Saturday's game against No. 23 Florida averaging 90.4 yards per game for his career with 14 rushing touchdowns. Last season in Florida, the Gainesville, Florida, native ripped off a 74-yard touchdown run right before the half to give Vandy a 7-6 lead it held until 2:22 left in the fourth quarter.
When Gators coach Jim McElwain looks at film of Webb, he sees a bigger back (Webb has gained roughly 12 pounds) who can muscle through the middle, but still sees breakaway speed that can burn a defense. McElwain admires the constant leg churning -- even at first contact -- quickness and jump cuts during power runs that make Webb a dangerous player with how he runs behind his pads.
"When he gets to the second level, he can go ahead and give you a leg and take it away," McElwain said. "He’s a hard guy to tackle and get clean shots on, and that’s what really separates him and makes him what he is."
When South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who passed on Webb as Florida's head coach a few years ago, thinks back to the opening week against Webb, he's amazed at the vision Webb had. His ability to see and find the smallest holes really "jumped out" at Muschamp. But it's that physical, pounding play that works as a perfect complement to his elite eyesight.
"He’s got a really good competitive edge for himself," Muschamp said. "He really goes out and competes and gets after it."
This summer, Webb not only bulked up, he became faster and more physical. The weight helped, but Webb said he and running backs coach Jeff Genyk worked tirelessly on his pass protection. They worked on his hands, so he could be more involved in the passing game (he's caught eight passes for 42 yards). The physical improvement has been key, but Webb said the biggest adjustment is his comfort in second-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's offense. Now, there's less thinking and more doing and reacting.
"I’m able to go out there and play loose and play within myself and play my game," Webb said.
Still, that isn't always good enough to have his name plastered next to the best in this conference. He doesn't have the elite skills of a Fournette or Chubb, but he's running along side them. He ranks eighth nationally with 10 runs of 10-plus yards coming after contact (one better than Fournette) and ninth nationally (third in the SEC) with 184 total yards after contact.
But his name just doesn't resonate like the others, which he uses as motivation.
"I see it, but it’s been this way since high school," Webb said. "I’m used to it. ... I use it as a chip on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong."
Mason loves that chip. He needs that chip, because it makes Webb the unheralded star that he is, giving him an edge that has made him the perfect secret weapon.
"He may be the best running back that nobody’s talking about," Mason said. "In my opinion, I wouldn’t trade him for any other running back in the country, at least for this football team."