He was replacing a long line of Arkansas safeties who set records, earned All-America honors and went on to play professionally.
With great expectations comes great pressure. Vaughn, a high school Parade All-American himself at Plano, Texas, welcomed the challenge.
"Getting thrown into the fire and being one of the older guys, you've got to step up," Vaughn said.
While he was one of the older guys in the secondary, Vaughn hadn't started a game before this season and the inexperience has sometimes been obvious because of untimely misreads and missed tackles.
"He's only eight games into his career, really," said Hogs secondary coach Bobby Allen. "He's getting better, which is exciting to see, but he still has an awful lot to learn."
This season, the lessons have been overwhelming.
In last week's 35-32 loss at South Carolina, Vaughn (6-foot, 202 pounds) went from hero to goat in less than four quarters. He intercepted a Dondrial Pinkins pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown to spot the Hogs a 7-0 lead, but missed a heads-on tackle on receiver Troy Williams on the Gamecocks' 14-yard game-winning touchdown combo.
The high and low of last week's loss mirrored Vaughn's hit and miss season in which he has evolved from being benched and shuffled between positions to becoming the trigger man on the Hogs' defense.
In the past three games, he has led the Hogs with 23 tackles. Vaughn also has two interceptions returned for 92 yards, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
"It's a roller coaster, but it's been a thrill," Vaughn said. "It's been a real learning season, and I've taken everything, good or bad, in stride and just try to better myself every day."
The Back Stops Here?
As the last line of defense, safeties can make or break a team and thousands of hearts of fans. They're often the last guy to make a tackle, or the last one to miss it.
Past Arkansas greats like Steve Atwater, Kenoy Kennedy, Ken Hamlin and Tony Bua stole more hearts than they broke with big hits and game-changing plays.
The way Vaughn took over the secondary in the spring had most comparing him to those guys and, even though he never had started a collegiate game, many expected to see another Hamlin or Bua patrolling the field.
"When you've had Kenoy Kennedy, Tony Bua and Ken Hamlin go before you, there should be high expectations," Allen said.
During a trip to catch Arkansas' Thursday practice, Bua, the Hogs' all-time leading tackler with 408 stops, talked about the pressure put on an Arkansas safety, the spot he moved to last season after playing linebacker three years.
"Going into that position, you have to understand that you're not always going to be the guy," said Bua, a rookie reserve outside linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. "Understand that on some plays, you're not the last line of defense -you may be up in the box or something, and a lot of the fans and the people don't know that.
"They think it's the safety's fault every time there's a big play, and sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. That's just part of the position, and that's just the nature of the beast."
Bua switched from outside linebacker to replace Hamlin at safety last season and has offered Vaughn some advice.
"You can never play like somebody else," Bua said. "Everybody has their own style of play, and I think if Vickiel Vaughn stays true to himself and the way he plays the game, then we're going to see a lot of Vickiel Vaughn in the future."
Few have doubt about Vaughn's talent. Tabbed as a hard hitter out of high school, Vaughn actually was more of a big-play guy, picking off 23 passes during his three-year career.
"To the media and all the scouts and stuff in high school, they looked at me as a big hitter," Vaughn said. "But to my teammates and my coaches and to the other teams that played us, they knew me as a person that if you threw the ball up, I would be somewhere around trying to get it."
In the past few games, Vaughn has shown playmaking ability by intercepting the first-quarter pass at South Carolina and causing a key fumble early against Georgia. He also picked off a pass and returned it 40 yards and recovered a fumble at Auburn.
The interception he returned for a touchdown is something he's done dozens of times in practice, so it didn't come as a surprise to Vaughn's coaches.
"It was still awful exciting to see him do it in a game," Allen said. "You watch him on film, and he played it correctly when he broke on the ball. I don't think the quarterback ever really saw him. He did what he was supposed to do and stepped in front of it."
Vaughn said it really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and he credited the defensive scheme.
"Good or bad, it's always a team effort," Vaughn said. "We're just out there trying to do our jobs and make plays."
Vaughn didn't start off the season playing with the kind of tenacity he's displayed the past three games. He seemed timid at times, and it even led to him losing his starting job after the 45-30 loss at Florida on Oct. 2.
Allen was brutally honest with Vaughn about his benching.
"He wasn't himself and we were very disappointed," Allen said. "The decision was made right then that the effort was not acceptable, and I told him, 'If you want to get back on the field, then the next chance you get to play, you prove you want to be on the field.
"'You've got the ability to make plays and I want the guy that was out there in the spring and everybody was bragging about that I know has the ability to play.'"
Allen's talk and Vaughn's benching has made a huge difference. It also caused Vaughn to be move to rover (strong safety), although the safety positions are virtually interchangeable in Arkansas' scheme.
"It made me realize that anything can be taken away from you," Vaughn said. "So the fact is, you've got to play your best and give your all out there. It made me realize that I had to step up my game, not only for myself, but for my team."
His teammates have noticed the difference.
"He's a lot more focused now," said Hogs cornerback Chris Houston. "The coaches talked to him, and he just stepped up his game. He realized that we need him to be our leader, and he's stepping up and doing that now."
Vaughn has been banged up more than most this season. He has sprained both ankles, hyperextended his elbow twice and dislocated a few fingers, among other nick and scrapes.
Through it all, he hasn't missed much action other than the occasional play in practice when he'd jog to a trainer to get something taped or twisted.
"It comes with the territory," Vaughn said. "You get banged up all the time, and that's just something that you expect and come to realize that it's part of the game.
"But you've got to keep going."
The thought of being benched again, for an injury or any other reason, doesn't sit well with Vaughn and is another thing that drives him to keep going at all costs.
"To use an excuse is just a cop-out for people who aren't taking responsibility in doing whatever your job is," Vaughn said. "In order for me to take responsibility, you can't let an injury or anything of that nature deter you from playing your best."
Vaughn made no excuses for his missed tackle last week. He simply hit Williamson and didn't wrap up. Vaughn stood with his hands on his hips on the Hogs' sideline after the missed tackle and blankly stared at the replays on South Carolina's Jumbo Tron.
"The replays still are playing in my mind," Vaughn said. "You hit folks and sometimes you take wrapping up for granted. You can't do that, and I won't do that again.
"You wish you could take that play back because if I wrap up, that play would have been over."
It's just another of the many lessons learned for Vaughn in his first season as an Arkansas starting safety.
"More or less, this season has showed me so far to never give up -play your hardest, and as long as you do your best, you can't worry about anything," Vaughn said. "Go out and give it your all and leave everything on the field.
"If you do that, then no matter what people expect, you're going to be all right."
Vaughn Learning On The Run
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