Forget the notion of growing pains. For Warren Norman and Zac Stacy, the biggest adjustment to college football has been the pain. Real pain."Worse than I've ever been in high school," Norman said. "Absolutely."
"So sore," was how Stacy described feeling on the morning following a game.
Neither of Vanderbilt's two freshmen running backs eased their way into the college ranks. They showed up on campus for the first time during the summer and stepped right onto the field in the Commodores' opener against Western Carolina.
One-third of the way through the season, each has the opportunity to surpass the school's freshman rushing record of 798 yards set in 2002 by Kwane Doster. Norman, in fact, is on pace to become the Commodores' first 1,000-yard rusher since Jermaine Johnson in 1995.
It could be said—with all due respect to John Mellencamp—that they hurt so good.
"It definitely isn't high school where you play three quarters and whatnot and you feel great in the morning," said Stacy, an Alabama Class 4A all-state player last season. "At the college level, you're going to feel sore."
Stacy often made it look easy for Bibb County High School, where he rushed for 5,863 yards and 76 touchdowns in a four-year career. As a senior, he averaged 11.1 yards every time he was handed the ball.
The same was true for Norman, a three-year starter at Chamblee High in Stone Mountain, Ga. He was an all-state player as a junior and added another 1,010 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior.
Not much changed in the 45-0 victory over Western Carolina, when Norman rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns and Stacy added 133 rushing yards. It was the first time in Vanderbilt history two freshmen topped 100 yards in the same game.
The following morning, though, they realized just how different—and difficult—things are at the next level.
"It's just moving around," Norman said. "I can get out of bed, but after like a couple of steps I start feeling the aches and pains everywhere."
They're going to have to get used to it. It's not the kind of thing that gets better over time, no matter how many yards they gain or how many touchdowns they score.
"It's always going to be that way, especially when you get a lot of carries," VU senior running back Jared Hawkins said. "Your body gets beat up no matter what team you're playing or what kind of game you have. It's just part of the game. Getting hit and then being out there and running around, your body gets sore from doing that."
Undoubtedly, this season has been similarly eye-opening to others around the Southeastern Conference—such as Auburn's Onterio McCalebb and Alabama's Trent Richardson, both of whom rank among the league's top 10 rushers, or Bryce Brown, the University of Tennessee's second-leading ground gainer.
All of them are freshmen. All are making impacts on their respective teams similar to those of Norman and Stacy at Vanderbilt despite a decided lack of experience.
That's not to say that a clear understanding of the physical toll is all it takes for a running back—any running back—to master the college game.
"It's more mental than physical," Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson said. "There's the pressure of playing in the SEC and having to execute and do all the little things they didn't have to do in high school. Then they come out to practice and get it right, get it wrong, get it right and correct things as they go.
"It's just not that you walk out there, they throw you the ball and you run with it."
Still, Stacy was singled out by teammates and coaches early in preseason camp for his ability to understand quickly some of the finer points of the position, such as pass protection.
Only when the physical nature of the game caught up with him—he sustained an ankle injury—did his production dip. After he rushed for 222 yards on 40 carries in the first two games, he has been limited to just nine yards in 11 attempts in the last two.
"You fight through the pain—especially at the running back position—because you just want to compete and just get out there," he said. "It's one of those things where it's true what people say, especially playing in the SEC. It's a fast, physical game."
Norman and Stacy proved that they were fast learners. Yet one thing they still don't know for sure is how long they can expect the post-game pain to last.
"It depends on where I'm sore," Norman said, "and how sore I am."
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