Until 2011, Zac Stacy was thought of as a complementary back in the Commodores' rotation. Despite averaging 4.5 and 5.0 yards per carry in his first two years with the team, no one predicted his breakout role as the star of Vanderbilt's offense last season. It wasn't until preparation met opportunity that Stacy emerged as one of the best tailbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
Warren Norman's injuries paved the way for Stacy to become a leading man in 2011, and the junior did not disappoint. The bulky slasher took a while to settle into his role - he didn't get more than 11 carries until the sixth game of the season - but his emergence turned around a stagnant Vandy offense, adding a new dimension against opposing defenses. Stacy set Vanderbilt records with 1,193 rushing yards and five games in which he gained over 125 yards in a single season.
The beauty of Stacy's game is that he's strong in all areas despite not excelling at any particular thing. He's got solid straightline speed that carried him to six runs of 35 yards or more as a junior, but isn't as fast as incoming freshman Brian Kimbrow. He's got strong hip movement that can cause tacklers to miss at the line of scrimmage, but he's not as elusive as stable-mate Norman. He's got the power to drag defenders into the end zone with him, but he's not quite a power runner in the mold that Wesley Tate or LaFonte Thorogood are/were.
Still, with those powers combined - and with solid hands and blocking out of the backfield - he makes up what just could be the most complete tailback in Vanderbilt's modern history. And in case you thought dragging defenders into the end zone was hyperbole, check this out:
That play captures Stacy's grinding style, but to leave the accolades solely to his inability to quit on a play would be selling him short. The All-SEC senior was a stabilizing force for this team in 2011 thanks to his ability to fill several different roles as a tailback (as long as he wasn't passing the ball; two interceptions in option-pass plays last season). He'll enter the 2012 season as the team's top option behind a continually improving offensive line, adding to what should be Vanderbilt's most effective offense since the days of Jay Cutler.
However, that's not to suggest that Stacy doesn't have his flaws. Defenses with stacked, athletic front lines have been able to shut him down, even in his breakout season. Alabama and South Carolina combined to limit him to just 22 yards on 11 carries in their matchups last year. Florida and Tennessee were similarly able to contain the junior RB.
Durability is also a concern. Last season was Stacy's first as a full-time starter and he played through a head injury suffered late in the season against Arkansas to keep Vandy's bowl hopes alive. That came on the heels of a concussion that kept him out of the final three games of the 2010 season, and another shot to the head could have a significant effect on Stacy's career in Nashville. He also fought through ankle and knee injuries in those first two seasons.
Vanderbilt's running back stable will be stocked in 2012, and leading the way will be Stacy, the team's first All-SEC tailback since 2001. Despite the addition of a now-healthy Warren Norman and uber-freshman Brian Kimbrow, the senior can probably still expect 15-20 carries per game thanks to his combination of speed, strength, and size. James Franklin will be counting on his 5'9" workhorse to carry the load at tailback, but he'll have plenty of help along the way. Stacy will have to prove that last season was no fluke, but for a do-it-all running back with skills across the board, that shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Next week: The return of Warren Norman.