Senior McKenzie hangs onto No. 1 tailback job

Vanderbilt tailback <B>Norval McKenzie</b> bounced back from a disappointing opener with a 99-yard rushing game vs. Ole Miss. The 5-11, 205-pound senior from Powder Springs, Ga., who held off a charge from talented junior Kwane Doster to retain the No. 1 tailback position, talks about his game, and his teammates talk about what makes him such a fierce competitor.

NASHVILLE-- When you are rehabbing an injury, and the guy who replaces you sets a freshman school record, becomes a Sporting News Freshman All-American and is named the SEC Freshman of the Year, the chances of you getting your job back are not all that great.

Unless you are Norval McKenzie.

McKenzie is Vanderbilt's No. 1 tailback, and after his 99-yard rushing effort against Ole Miss, it is a safe bet he'll hold onto the job he was forced to win back in the fall of 2002 from Kwane Doster, a talented youngster that almost ran McKenzie out of a job.

McKenzie got out of the blocks fast as a sophomore in 2002, averaging an SEC-best 7.8 yards per carry through the Commodores' first five games of the season. He had over 100 yards against Ole Miss, another 99 in a win over Furman and seemed well on his way to becoming Vanderbilt's go-to guy on offense.

McKenzie broke his leg in practice heading into the MTSU game, and his season was instantly over. True freshman Doster became the No. 1 tailback, and he picked up right where McKenzie left off. Doster recorded four 100-yard rushing games and gained a Vanderbilt freshman-record 798 yards, many of which came after McKenzie's injury, before missing the final game against Tennessee with an injury.

But McKenzie pushed aside the freshman hot-shot, ultimately winning the job back in 2003 and holding onto it this season, though both players see significant action.

"He's a competitor," said quarterback Jay Cutler. "He just wants to win. He'll do anything for this team no matter what."

There is one area of his game Cutler appreciates as much as any other.

"He can pass protect," Cutler said. "I think that's what sets him apart. He's a great pass-protector when we're throwing the ball. He's an all-around good back for us."

McKenzie is both elusive and powerful, yet not overwhelmingly so in either area. But he can be dangerous between the tackles as well as on the perimeter, where he burned the Ole Miss defense on some option pitches en route to his 99 yards Saturday.

"He played a good game," coach Bobby Johnson said. "He was the beneficiary of some of those hits Jay (Cutler) was taking right after the pitch, which is what the option is designed to do. Norval also ran well in our zone plays. We have a lot of confidence in him."

McKenzie was completely shut down in the season-opener against South Carolina, finishing with negative-four yards on seven carries. But he never lost faith in his offensive line, and the Commodores responded against Ole Miss, rushing for 198 yards (excluding sacks).

"I wasn't concerned," McKenzie said of the running game after the opener. "Our coaches kept saying we need to have faith in the offensive line, that they would get the job done. The offensive line did a great job. For two weeks, we emphasized being physical at the line of attack, and they did a great job this weekend."

McKenzie said he enjoys the competition between him and Doster, and said it is nice to be able to share the load.

"Me and Kwane compete every day in practice and in the games. That is good for the team and us individually," McKenzie said. "It is good to have somebody to compete, because the only way you can get better is if you are in competition with somebody."

After five years, McKenzie expected some success for his senior season, and he feels it is still within the team's reach despite the slow start.

"There has been a lot of hype for this season," he said. "Fans might get down, but we have nine games left and hopefully 10. Hopefully we get the job done and have a successful season."

The Commodores take on ground-hugging Navy this week, a team that controls the ball and keeps the opposing offense on the sideline.

"We offensive players were talking about that this week," McKenzie said. "We feel like we have to put up points every time we get the ball. Last year, it was tough. They had ball control the whole game. You never know if you are going to get the ball back with the triple-option they run."

When the Commodores do get the ball back, they know they have the option of No. 9 in the backfield to help them out.


Bill Trocchi is Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports. Top Stories