CHAMPAIGN - A year ago, Illinois wasn't considered a likely landing spot four four-star running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn.
But that didn't stop the Illini staff -- intent on swinging for the fences for a true playmaker -- from trying.
Illinois outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson, whose recruiting area includes Vaughn's hometown of Nashville, kept calling as Vaughn -- the Tennesee Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014 and Scout's No. 259 prospect in the Class of 2015 -- received interest from schools like Tennessee, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Seamonson kept calling as Vaughn focused on other schools, making official visits to Louisville and Purdue during the season.
After the season, Illini assistant Alex Golesh, then the UI recruiting coordinator, started calling and eventually visted Vaughn and his family in Nashville. By that point, Vaughn had decided he wanted to get away from home.
The Illini just had to convince Vaughn that Illinois -- and not Notre Dame and West Virginia, the other two schools Vaughn officially visited in January -- should be his second home.
"You get the trust of the kid and you feel like, 'We're all in this thing together,' and we're going to get those kind of kids," said current Illini recruiting coordinator Ryan Cubit. "Luckily, it worked out in our favor (for Vaughn)."
Good thing Illinois landed Vaughn, along with Pearl Cohn teammate and defensive back Cameron Watkins, because the freshman, who has 227 rushing yards and two touchdowns through his first four collegiate games, has quickly become an intergral part of the 2015 Illini offense.
Illinois was going to count on a newcomer as its second rushing option, it just didn't know which one.
During spring ractice, it looked as if fresman Dre Brown would take the role. Then he suffered a torn ACL during a noncontact drill and was forced to redshirt the 2015 season as he recovers. Fellow freshman Reggie Corbin also will miss the season after suffering a shoulder injury during fall training camp.
Junior college prospect Henry Enyenihi arrived in the spring, but Vaughn quickly impressed the Illini staff and nailed down the No. 2 job. Illini fans are starting to see why.
Vaughn rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries -- all in the second half -- of Saturday's 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee.
“I haven’t seen him run like that since I’ve been here," Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said. "He’s done a good job here, but he really showed us what type of back he could be in the future and what type of back he is. I was really impressed. That was a huge positive from the game, knowing we have a solid No. 2 back that’s a good player.”
Said Illini interim coach Bill Cubit: “I thought he really grew up. I really like the way he played. He was patient in his runs. He understood where the unblocked guy was. He really is a smart player. I think when we put him and Josh in at the same time, that’s not a bad personnel grouping for us. I think Ke’Shawn can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, so that helps out. I think Ke’Shawn, he’s playing fairly well.”
Vaughn is an ideal fit for the Illini's zone-blocking scheme. He has great vision, quickly picks a hole, plants his foot, squares his shoulder and bursts through the hole. Vaughn must continue to improve his pass blocking. Against Middle Tennessee, he failed to pick up a defensive linemen who went unblocked and eventually sacked Lunt. But Bill Cubit said he has been mostly pleased with Vaughn's pass-rush pickup.
Vaughn (4.4 yards per carry) may be the backup, but he is a big part of the Illini offense. He has topped 11 carries and 43 rushing yards in each of his first four games, giving a much-needed break to starter Josh Ferguson who has had cramping issues for most of his career.
“The big key for us is to make sure Josh gets to the end," Cubit said. "If we wear Josh out too early, we don’t have him at the end. It’s going to be hard for him to play at the type of pace he plays at. The guy plays hard, and he’s going to take a lot of hits.”
At his current pace, Vaughn is on pace for 156 carries for 681 rushing yards this season.
"He showed me he was ready," Ferguson said after Vaughn's 80-yard, second-half performance on Saturday. "He was ready to go. We've been challenging him since he got here. He proved himself worthy."
The Illinois offensive line has consistently protected their quarterbacks this season. The starting five has allowed just two sacks in four games, and the whole group ranks 13th nationally with just three sacks allowed.
But the Illini front five also is starting to show an ability to clear some paths for the running backs. Illinois has run for 367 yards (4.3 yards per game) the last two games.
Bill Cubit's confidence in his offensive line's run-blocking capabilities is growing.
"I think they're doing a lot better job," Cubit said.
The Illini coach said some of the offensive linemen get worn down due to the 80-95 snaps a game, especially first-year starters Austin Schmidt and Chris Boles, but singled out backups Chris O'Connor and Pat Flavin for giving serviceable snaps on a few series per game. Cubit also said he'd like to get more reps from backup center/guard Nick Allegretti, who the team moved to backup defensive tackle for two games due to depth issues.
"We got to get him in there," Cubit said. "The two weeks on the defensive side probably didn't help him offensively. This week should allow him to catch up."