Cowboys Deuce Vaughn's next goal: Go from feel-good to make-good story

At 5-foot-5, Dallas Cowboys' sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn is the shortest player on record (since 2003) at the NFL combine. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

FRISCO, Texas -- For Deuce Vaughn, the hard part starts now.

As much as his selection in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys became a feel-good viral moment when his father, Chris, the team’s assistant director of college scouting, made the phone call to tell his son he would be the team’s pick, the story grows even greater if Vaughn can come close to replicating what he did at Kansas State.

The Cowboys will hold their rookie mini-camp this weekend, giving their draft picks and college free agents their first look at how things operate, but without much -- if any, depending on the weather -- actual on-field work. It will be the third time first-round defensive tackle Mazi Smith will be at The Star, having visited the franchise before the draft and holding a news conference the day after he was selected No. 26 overall.

For Vaughn, the 5-foot-5, 179-pound running back, roaming the halls of The Star will also not be new. He has been to his new office a few times with his dad. Now he will have a locker and a uniform -- No. 42, since his favorite number, No. 22, is off limits because it belonged to the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith.

In 2023, the Cowboys figure to alter the running back approach they have had for the better part of a decade -- when they had DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and Ezekiel Elliott handling the bulk of the carries -- to a more diverse rotation.

Tony Pollard had 1,007 yards last year with a career-high 193 carries. They also have Ronald Jones, who was signed as a free agent from the Kansas City Chiefs. He had a career-high 192 carries in 2020 while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, finishing with 978 yards. With Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle also on the roster, it will be on Vaughn to show he can handle anything and everything the Cowboys ask.

“I think clearly Deuce can play in the normal flow of our offense on first and second down,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think, stating the obvious, as far as the [pass] protection component, we’ve got to work together there, but there are some very distinct situational thoughts and concepts that I have in mind already. [Versatile former Packers receiver] Randall Cobb-ish type things I’ve done in the past. Yeah, we’ll definitely have opportunities for him to take advantage of his productivity. He’s a dynamic player.”

At 5-5, he was the shortest player on record (since 2003) at the NFL scouting combine, but his production at K-State matched some of the best Power 5 running backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since 2015, Vaughn is one of seven running backs to post at least 1,400 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, joining Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, Travis Etienne Jr., Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Najee Harris.

Vaughn had 29 games with 100 scrimmage yards or more, third most in Big 12 history. Only Ricky Williams (25), Cedric Benson (25), Darren Sproles (24) and Adrian Peterson (22) had more 100-yard rushing games in the Big 12 than Vaughn.

“I want to say that with my evaluator cap on, he can make plays a couple different ways. He’s demonstrated that,” Chris Vaughn said. “You don’t have to play him necessarily differently because he is a smaller guy. His biggest runs were inside, downhill runs, as opposed to always using him in space or always using him outside. I’m not trying to be the coach here when I say that but what I’m saying is he’s going to come give everything he’s got.

"He’s going to wear the coaches out as far as, ‘You want to meet? You want to watch? You want to talk?’ He loves everything about the process … [He’s] a person that’s eager for the opportunity to show exactly what he can do with the doubters around the league. Not in this building, because we took him, but the other 31 teams. That will be a natural chip on his shoulder in wanting to show and prove he can do at this level, just like he did at the college level."

McCaffrey, 5-11, 205 pounds and now with the San Francisco 49ers, was the first player Vaughn mentioned when asked if there was a player he modeled his game after.

“Just because of his versatility,” Deuce said. “The way that he was able to run in between tight spaces, run the ball inside and outside. They split him out wide. Even coming out of high school, watching him and the way he was so versatile and just did everything. A true all-purpose back. He’s someone that I’ve always looked up to and watched film on just because of the way he’s been used.”

But the running back mentioned most often when it comes to Vaughn is Sproles, who predated Vaughn at K-State before a 15-year NFL career with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles.

At 5-6, 190 pounds, Sproles was a three-time Pro Bowler. He ran for 3,552 yards, had 4,840 receiving yards and scored 64 touchdowns: 23 rushing, 32 receiving, 7 punt returns, 2 kick returns.

Vaughn is second to Sproles in rushing yards (3,604) and all-purpose yards (5,029) in K-State history. The two have built a strong relationship that began in Vaughn’s sophomore year of college. When the Cowboys picked Vaughn, Sproles was one of the first to text him.

“He said he was proud of me. He said to keep the short backs alive. I told him I’d make him proud,” Deuce said. “He said that the work starts now and that everything’s out in front of me. I’ve just got to go work hard for it.”