NOTE: This is a cross-post from Nashville Sports Hub.
The NFL Draft is less than a month away, and a handful of seniors from Vanderbilt’s 9-4 season harbor the dream of hearing their name called in New York City by Commissioner Roger Goodell. Commodore alumni have had plenty of recent success in the Draft over the past few years. Defensive backs like D.J. Moore, Casey Hayward, and Myron Lewis have all parlayed their time in Nashville into professional careers.
This year, it’s a player on the other side of the ball who will carry the Vandy flag to the NFL.
Zac Stacy emerged in 2011 and 2012 as one of the SEC’s best tailbacks. After a strong NFL Combine performance, he’s likely to be the first ‘Dore to be selected at Radio City Music Hall. Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher posted back to back 1,000 yard seasons under James Franklin but has flown under the radar thanks to the presence of conference-mates like Eddie Lacy and Marcus Lattimore. As a result, the catalyst behind Vandy’s offensive revival is likely to be a late round pick.
That’ll be just fine for Stacy, a player who has never been short on motivation. The Centreville, AL native came to Nashville as an unheralded recruit and took a backseat to classmate Warren Norman for his first two years as a Commodore. When he was given the opportunity to win the starting job outright as a junior, he seized it, developing into a key weapon for a Vandy team that hadn’t had a stable rushing presence in years. Stacy was simultaneously a short-yardage expert and a home run threat, using a blend of speed, strength, and smarts to outclass defenders en route to a record setting career.
Now, he’s off to the pro ranks. Can a better-than-expected Combine performance make him a second day pick? Or will a player who has been as important to Vanderbilt’s 15 wins in the past two years as James Franklin linger on draft boards until the sixth or seventh rounds? Let’s look at Stacy’s profile as a feature back.
Strengths: Well, his strength, for one. Stacy is only 5’9″, but he’s built like a Gothic cathedral. The stocky tailback has been been one to shy away from contact, and his ability to plow through arm tackles and drag defenders downfield were extremely valuable to Vanderbilt over the past two years. Stacy is also a smart back who can identify holes without getting stuck dancing behind the line. He finds an angle of attack and sticks to it, making him difficult to drop for a loss.
He’s proven to be valuable in short yardage situations, but he’s also liable to rip off a big run at any given moment. He had seven runs of 15 yards or more as a senior in 2012. He has fluid lateral movement, as he showed in the three-cone drill at the Combine, and he can make defenders miss at the point of attack. He’s also a strong leader, and his character as a player was unassailable at Vanderbilt.
Weaknesses: Stacy’s straight line speed isn’t spectacular. Despite a history of breaking long runs at Vanderbilt, his 40 yard dash time clocked in at 4.55 at the Combine. That may be an issue in the only league where defenses are faster than in the SEC. Durability may also be an issue for Stacy. A number of nagging injuries limited his carries at Vanderbilt – everything from minor concussions to tweaked ankles. He’s a tough player, but his physical style of play makes him a magnet for pain.
Stacy was also inconsistent when playing some of the best defenses in the country. While he performed well against Georgia in 2012, he ran for just 48 yards against South Carolina. Average showings against Florida and Missouri cost him a chance to put his name on the map in terms of becoming a breakout star. He also isn’t a great receiver out of the backfield.
Ideal Fit: Stacy is still growing as a runner, and while he’s probably topped out athletically, there’s still plenty for him to learn after taking on a workhorse, number-one back role for just two years in Nashville. While it’s possible that he could have an immediate impact in the NFL, he’ll probably need some seasoning as he adjusts to a faster game. His ideal situation would be with a team that has an entrenched veteran as their featured tailback. This would allow Stacy to log some time behind him, earn some carries, and eventually step into a starring role. A good comparison would be how Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson have been groomed to take over Steven Jackson’s role in Saint Louis.
Teams that fit that bill include Seattle (Marshawn Lynch), Denver (Willis McGehee), Jacksonville (Maurice Jones-Drew), and Cincinnati (BenJarvus Green-Ellis). If Stacy is able to adjust to the pro ranks more quickly, then unstable backfields in Carolina (DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart), Dallas (DeMarco Murray), Indianapolis (Donald Brown/Vick Ballard), and the New York Jets (Bilal Powell?) would also work well for the powerful back.
If I Had to Guess...: Any kind of projection for Stacy will rely on how the top five running backs are selected before him. There are plenty of teams with holes in their running game in 2013, and Stacy could be a late round gem for any team that abstains from an early run at the position. But if we’re pulling projections out of a hat based on fit and projected value, let’s say that Stacy will end up with the Cincinnati Bengals with the 23rd pick (156th overall) of the fifth round.