Zac Stacy was the best running back to ever play at Vanderbilt. The stats back that up.
Stacy developed from a platoon presence into an All-SEC back behind some prodigious talents and an incredible work ethic. The stocky Alabaman had two of the best years of any NCAA tailback in 2011 and 2012, combining for 2,334 rushing yards (89.8 per game), 24 touchdowns, and a stellar 5.7 yards per carry. He shattered school records for single season and career rushing yards before getting snapped up by the St. Louis Rams in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
And now, Vanderbilt has the unpleasant task of replacing all that. Fortunately, the 'Dores have the depth to take some of the sting out of Stacy's graduation.
Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow, and Jerron Seymour will all return in 2013 to give Vandy a three-headed rushing attack as James Franklin's team attempts to storm to a third-consecutive bowl appearance. All three will give the 'Dores a different look out of the backfield. Tate brings the most well-rounded game of the three, while Kimbrow is the team's biggest home run threat and Seymour is a compact, powerful pinball of a runner. They should give Franklin plenty of flexibility when it comes to setting up the Vandy offense this fall.
They've got some big shoes to fill. Stacy was this team's most reliable runner in decades, and Tate will have to step up and replace his senior leadership. In terms of talent, all the pieces are there, but these players will have to show that they can put them all together and work as a cohesive unit. Let's look at Vanderbilt's tailback stable for 2013.
The Tailback Rotation:
Wesley Tate - "Platinum" Tate (copyright: VandyImport) has contributed across the Vanderbilt offense in his four years in Nashville. The 6'1", 215 lb athlete came to Vandy as a well-built tailback and split time at that position and receiver before returning to the backfield in 2012. That season, he ran for 376 yards as Stacy's platoon-mate and showed that he can be an effective weapon in the red zone (nine touchdowns). While he doesn't have great breakaway speed and he can be indecisive at the line, he's solid when tasked with third-and-short or goal line situations.
While Tate was saddled with just a 3.5 YPC average in 2012, he brought plenty of value to this team due to his versatility. He'll give the 'Dores a dynamic weapon out of the backfield. His size makes him an able blocker and he's reliable when it comes to picking up blitzes and providing an extra layer of protection. His time as a slot receiver has made him the team's best receiving option amongst running backs - something that will come in handy for James Franklin's screen-happy offense.
Tate is still looking to put all his skills together and have a breakout season. He's a powerful runner but he lacks Stacy's ability to read the field and can miss holes. He's got the physical gifts to be the lead back for a winning SEC program, but he'll have to prove that he can apply those on the field consistently if he's going to make a run at the leading role for the Commodores this fall.
Also, Wesley Tate can do this, which is nice:
Brian Kimbrow - Kimbrow was Vanderbilt's first ESPN150 recruit last spring, and he showed flashes of his otherworldly quickness with big runs against Presbyterian, UMass, and Kentucky. The 5'8" tailback is one of the fastest players in a conference known for speed, and he'll instantly give the 'Dores a change-of-pace player if he doesn't win the starting RB role outright this summer.
Kimbrow's greatest asset is that quickness, and his home run ability made him impossible to redshirt as a true freshman. He adapted well enough to pick up simple blitz/blocking schemes, but his size and inexperience (along with a pretty well stocked RB rotation in front of him) kept him from earning more snaps. He's worked hard to bulk up and round out his game, and that will help his case for more carries in 2013.
However, Kimbrow's first year in Nashville also left some questions. He cleaned up against low level teams like UMass and Presbyterian, but didn't do much in limited touches against more established FBS programs. He had just 13 total carries for 24 yards in games against Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, and Wake Forest. He'll need to prove that he can be a consistent first down threat against the SEC's best if he's going to live up to the high expectations he set as a high schooler in Memphis.
Cue to 2:45 for Kimbrow's breakaway TD against Presbyterian.
Jerron Seymour - After a solid true freshman campaign, Seymour faded into the background when an early injury led to a redshirt season in his sophomore year. The 5'7", 190 lb bowling ball put his name on the map with a 70-yard performance in his second game at the NCAA level but struggled as his rookie year wore on and Zac Stacy ascended to full-time tailback. That ascension eventually led to Seymour's redshirt decision since the team had little impetus to rush the Florida native back to the field.
The third-year player is the last vestige of Bobby Johnson/Robbie Caldwell's string of under-recruited tailbacks who have ended up making an impact for the Commodores. Seymour is short, but powerful, and that makes him difficult to arm tackle. He's got good straight line speed and should benefit significantly from an offensive line that is considerably better than it was the last time he was taking handoffs in the SEC.
Like Tate and Kimbrow, he'll still need to prove that he can perform on a consistent basis. Once defenses adjusted for Seymour, he failed to gain more than 30 yards in any of Vandy's final nine games in 2011. He'll have the opportunity to take teams by surprise once more in 2013, but the key to his development will be finding an extra gear that keeps opponents from taking him out of the game.
Skip to the 0:25 mark for his 40-yard touchdown against UConn.
The other candidates:
Rapheal Webb - Webb is a true freshman who will come to Vanderbilt as a three-star recruit. He chose the 'Dores over schools like Boston College, Rutgers, and Utah. With strong legs and a 4.5 40-yard dash time, he could develop into a Stacy-style runner. He'll have to bulk up to get there, but he showed that he wasn't afraid to run up the middle in high school and could develop into a pile-driving masher for the 'Dores in the future. Unless he has a monster summer he'll probably redshirt, but Webb could be a very valuable addition to this team. He may be the most underrated member of his recruiting class.
Derek King - King was a special teams contributor in 2011 who played sparingly as a reserve defensive back as well. The Brentwood native is a solid athlete but he lacks the top-end speed of the players listed in front of him. He'll be one of the bigger members of the Commodore backfield, and he could earn touches as the fourth member of the Vandy tailback triad in 2013.
Hasan Clayton transferred to Vanderbilt from Dayton and joined the team as a walk-on in 2011. He hasn't seen much action outside of the scout team in practices, but could contribute if pressed into action by injuries this fall. Given his service to the team and potential to become an inspirational story, Clayton may earn a few carries in 2013, particularly in games against UMass, UAB, and Austin Peay. Tyler Anders has good size (192 lbs) but hasn't seen the field for Vanderbilt in two years with the team. Like Clayton, he's also a transfer student (Marshall) who could earn a few garbage time touches. Will Fritz is a 5'6" back in his second year with the team.