2020 NFL Draft: Vanderbilt well-represented in Reese’s Senior Bowl

Despite a disappointing season, Vanderbilt is set to send three intriguing 2020 NFL Draft prospects to the Reese's Senior Bowl.

Going into the 2019 season, Vanderbilt boasted perhaps the most formidable offensive trio in the SEC. While it’s fairly uncommon to see a team with a 2-6 record send three players to the prestigious Reese’s Senior Bowl, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney, and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb will all be representing the Vanderbilt Commodores in Mobile, Alabama. The offensive trifecta will look to turn back the clock to 2018, when they each enjoyed breakout campaigns, as they look to impress NFL brass ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft.

This piece highlights the three Vanderbilt seniors and Senior Bowl attendees, who will each have a tremendous opportunity to boost their stock with a strong showing in Mobile.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn

The Illinois transfer is coming off a career season in which he rushed for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 157 carries in his first season in Nashville. Additionally, he added 170 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

While it was always going to be tough to eclipse those lofty numbers for an encore, the 5-foot-10, 218-pound running back hasn’t quite had that breakout that many expected. Through eight games, Vaughn has rushed for 790 yards and six touchdowns on 151 carries. He’s cleared the 100-yard mark three times, against LSU (130), NIU (138), and UNLV (140).

NFL outlook

Vaughn has the talent to be the best runner at the Senior Bowl, as he offers the perfect blend of power and finesse. He has the breakaway speed to turn the corner and run to daylight, and the power to find success running between the tackles to grind out tough yards. With 61 career catches over his four-year career, he’s also proven to be well adept at catching the football, an area of his game I suspect will be exposed in front of the masses of talent evaluators at the Senior Bowl.

Vaughn has the skill set to eventually become a rare three-down back at the next level. His compact frame and patience at the line of scrimmage allows him to get skinny through the hole once he finds a crease. Among the fastest running backs in this draft class, Vaughn has the electric burst to score from anywhere on the field. How the Vanderbilt product holds up in pass protection at the Senior Bowl could ultimately be what determines his draft stock, however.

Jared Pinkney

Pinkney burst onto the scene as a junior with a 50-catch, 774-yard, seven-touchdown season. At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, with exceptional speed, he evolved into one of the premier offensive weapons in college football.

With understandable hype building in the months leading up to his final season, Pinkney’s name appeared on the John Mackey Award watch list, an annual award given to the top tight end in college football. Adding to his preseason buzz, his name was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list — which is given to the nation’s top receiver.

Pinkney experienced a significant dip in production in 2019, however, due in large part to a stagnant Vanderbilt offense that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Through eight games, Pinkney has just 15 receptions for 157 yards. He has yet to find the end zone. 

NFL outlook

Pinkney may have the most to gain at the Reese’s Senior Bowl — and for good reason.

Given the growing league-wide trend of increased usage of 12-personnel, teams are looking to exploit mismatches with multiple athletic tight ends on the field. They are often too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs — and virtually uncoverable in the red zone.

At 260 pounds, Pinkney has the ability to run nuanced routes like a wide receiver — transitioning in and out of his breaks with relative ease — and he can hold his own as a blocker in the running game. He also poses a legitimate threat downfield and has demonstrated an innate ability of tracking the football. Currently a top-50 player on my draft board, Pinkney should be selected somewhere in the second round.

Kalija Lipscomb

Like his teammates listed above, Lipscomb also compiled a breakout season in 2018. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wideout amassed 87 catches for 916 yards and nine touchdowns, establishing himself as a trusty go-to option on intermediate routes and a formidable blocker on the perimeter.

Eight games into his senior season, Lipscomb once again leads the Commodore aerial attack, racking up 31 catches for 377 yards and two touchdowns. The New Orleans native turned in his lone 100-yard performance in a Week 4 win over Northern Illinois.

NFL outlook

While Pinkney has the most to gain in Mobile, Lipscomb may have the most to prove. Aside from his offensive eruption in 2018, he has never had more than 37 receptions in a season. Not known for his explosiveness off the line of scrimmage or downfield speed, Lipscomb will need to prove he can create separation against the top coverage specialists in the country.

Though he doesn’t possess the blistering speed or quick-twitch traits that are often found in first and second-day selections, Lipscomb will likely go on to have a lengthy career in the NFL. While not as big coming out of college, I liken his skill set to Kenny Golladay coming out of Northern Illinois. He excels on coming up with contested catches, high-pointing the football between the hash marks, and serving as an all-important consistent chain-mover.

Players like that tend to stick around.