Nothing trivial about Norman's freshman season

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It’s trivia time in the SEC: Who leads the league in all-purpose yardage?

Take your time and think about it.

Nope, it’s not Mark Ingram, Randall Cobb, Ben Tate or even Dexter McCluster.

Vanderbilt freshman running back Warren Norman is the correct choice, and he’s averaging almost 10 more all-purpose yards per game than anybody else in the league.

Norman, one of the few bright spots for the Commodores on offense this season, is accounting for 157.5 yards per game. He’s sixth in the SEC in rushing with 533 yards, has 59 yards in receptions and is also Vanderbilt’s top kickoff returner with 668 yards.

Twice this season, the 5-10, 188-pound Norman has taken kickoffs back for touchdowns, becoming the first Vanderbilt player in history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns. He returned one 99 yards last week against South Carolina for a score and shook loose on a 76-yard touchdown return against Army earlier this season.

Even for Norman, it’s all been a blur.

“I expected to come in and play, but I can’t say I expected to come in and do this as a freshman,” Norman said. “Some people might say I’ve overachieved. I just know that I’ve come in and worked hard every day I’ve been on that practice field and every day I’ve been in that weight room.”

When Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson went out looking for running backs last year, he had immediate playing time to sell. The only regular the Commodores had returning in the backfield was Jared Hawkins, and he was coming off foot surgery that has plagued him all of this season.

Vanderbilt ended up signing three running backs -- Zac Stacy, Wesley Tate and Norman.

But it’s been Norman, who admittedly wasn’t highly recruited out of Stone Mountain, Ga., that’s risen to the forefront and is now making a strong bid for Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC.

For a while, Stacy and Norman were sort of splitting the carries, but Stacy has been slowed by an ankle injury.

“It was sort of thrust upon Warren, and he answered the call,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “Warren has a knack of making good cuts and finding the hole and slipping through there, but he also has excellent speed and is a smart player.

“But did I anticipate this? No. Did I anticipate him returning two kickoffs for touchdowns? No. But we knew he had that type of talent in him.”

Fittingly enough, one of the other bigger schools that offered Norman a scholarship was Georgia Tech, which visits Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday. Iowa State also offered.

Still, it wasn’t like recruiters were knocking down his door. He played in an option offense earlier in his high school career, and the carries were spread out among several players.

Norman also said that he only attended one of the big high school combines that are so popular these days with recruits because he didn’t want to bail on his track team and because of transportation issues.

“I don’t think a lot of people knew about me,” Norman said. “I got some letters, but not a lot of offers. I’m not complaining, though, because I’m happy how it all turned out.”

Being so close to home, it was hard for Norman to say no to the Yellow Jackets. But he’d been to Vanderbilt’s camp the summer before and liked what the Commodores had to offer academically.

“Playing in the SEC was a big factor, too,” Norman said. “If you can play in this league, you can play in any league. I might have surprised some people with what I’ve done so far. I might have surprised even some people close to me like old coaches and family, but I know I can get a lot better and am going to just keep on working.”

Norman needs 266 more rushing yards this season to pass the late Kwane Doster and become Vanderbilt’s all-time freshman rushing leader.

And while he’s still getting used to the speed of SEC defenses, Norman is starting to see running lanes more instinctively and reading his blocks quicker.

“You have to. It’s crazy how fast everything happens in this league,” he said.

His kickoff return duties have also helped him become a better running back.

“It helps me get into the flow of the game,” Norman said. “You see the holes opening up in front of you, and that translates to the running back position.”

It also translates to Norman having one of the best freshman seasons in Vanderbilt football history.

And pretty soon, he’ll be the answer to the trivia question in the SEC that everybody gets right.

“I hope this is just the start,” Norman said.