Zac Stacy has had a good 2012. In fact, by normal Vanderbilt running back standards, you could even argue that he's having a great season so far. But Zac Stacy isn't a normal Vanderbilt running back.
In fact, he has the opportunity to be the greatest halfback in modern Commodore history.
Stacy made the leap from platoon player to All-SEC standout last season after a scorching-hot second half helped lead Vanderbilt to their fifth-ever bowl bid. Big outings against teams like Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky made Stacy a commodity across the NCAA. He ended up on the watch list for the Maxwell Award - an award given to college football's best offensive player - and set off a debate amongst SEC fans when he was left off the first team when it came to this year's preseason all-conference squads.
That was quite a turnaround from a player who had mostly split carries before 2011. He showed flashes of his ability in his first two years in Nashville, but an underwhelming sophomore campaign seemed to cement his status as a part-time back. After working in a platoon with Warren Norman his first two years and Jerron Seymour in the beginning of his '11 campaign, Stacy broke out not only as a workhorse back, but also as a consistent home run threat. His 1,193 rushing yards were a Commodore single-season record.
Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to keep up that breakneck pace against BCS-level opponents in 2012. Stacy has racked up 38 carries for 167 yards against South Carolina, Northwestern, and Georgia so far this season. That comes out to about a 4.4 yard per carry average with no touchdowns. Those are decent numbers, but they aren't the greatness that many expected after the senior finished 2011 like an All-American. Here's how he has looked when you factor in his eight carry performance against Presbyterian:
|2011 GAME LOG||Rushing||Receiving|
|17-Sep||Ole Miss||W 30-7||11||169||15.4||77||1||2||17||8.5||14||0|
|24-Sep||@South Carolina||L 21-3||7||18||2.6||11||0||2||-10||-5||0||0|
|2012 GAME LOG||Rushing||Receiving|
|30-Aug||South Carolina||L 17-13||13||48||3.7||17||0||0||0||0||0||0|
Part of Stacy's problem in 2012 has been a cautious start for the All-SEC halfback. Stacy has maxed out at 13 carries per contest in his four games this season. Part of the cause for that has been the team's status in blowouts (a win against Presbyterian and a loss at Georgia) and their need to play from behind late against South Carolina and Northwestern. Still, contrast those carry numbers to his best performances in the second half of '11; 21 carries for 198 yards against Army, and 28 carries against both Kentucky and Wake Forest for 319 combined yards and six touchdowns.
It's not a stretch to suggest that Stacy has been underused, though the cause may be related to his concussion history and James Franklin's reluctance to overwork him early in the year. The senior only has 46 of Vanderbilt's 152 carries this year. If you limit touches to only running backs, then that team figure drops to 101. That means that if Vandy is handing the ball off, there's a better-than-average chance that the guy getting the ball isn't the 'Dores All-SEC rusher.
So can Stacy turn on the afterburners for the final two-thirds of the season? His numbers from last year and the Commodores' remaining schedule suggest that he will.
In 2011, Stacy was ineffective against elite teams. He had just 11 carries for 22 yards against South Carolina and Alabama. However, he was a stud against good opponents. He gained 97 yards against Georgia and 128 against Arkansas. He also sprung for 100-yard games against three more opponents that hailed from BCS conferences - Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Wake Forest.
The last three entries in the preceding paragraph aren't a murderer's row of ferocious defenses, but they're squads that Stacy will get the opportunity to mow down against later in the year. If last season is any indication, the senior will only pick up steam - both as a runner and as the team's featured back - from here. Here's what he did in Vanderbilt's last four games of 2011.
|2012 GAME LOG||Rushing||Receiving|
|19-Nov||@Tennessee||L 27-21 (OT)||17||61||3.6||18||1||2||17||8.5||9||0|
|26-Nov||@Wake Forest||W 41-7||28||184||6.6||40||3||0||0||0||0||0|
Stacy's yards-per-carry figure dropped, but he was more effective as a workhorse than as a home run threat. He scored at least one touchdown in each contest and averaged over 100 yards per game on the ground. While those numbers are skewed by a small sample size and Stacy's big performances in Vandy wins, they still paint a telling picture. The Commodore offense seems to score more in games where the stocky back gets his share of carries. In fact, in the seven games that Stacy had 17 carries or more his team scored an average of 32 points per game. The lowest output the team had in that stretch was a 21 point showing against Tennessee.
Stacy's environment has changed in 2012. Seymour, beset by nagging injuries, may be headed for a redshirt year. A potentially healthy Norman and hyped freshman Brian Kimbrow have picked up some of his carries in the interim. Wesley Tate has even been shuffled to the backfield as James Franklin tries to configure a unit that should be the Commodores' biggest offensive strength. In front of him, a rebuilding offensive line has struggled to replace a pair of starters and has been pushed around by bigger, faster SEC linemen.
When everything gets sorted out, Zac Stacy needs to return to the role that led him to a Vanderbilt rushing record in 2011. He shrugged off a smaller act that year to emerge as the player that opposing defenses had to plan around when the Commodores came to town. He has plenty of time to take over at tailback, and a stronger base than he did as a junior. Still, it'll take work if he's going to overtake guys like Marcus Lattimore and Todd Gurley in the race for first team all-conference honors.
The Commodores have a diamond in their backfield. In fact, they probably have a few. But until the team sorts out their priorities Zac Stacy will only get the chance to shine in limited appearances. In more ways than one, James Franklin and his crew need to hope for a return to 2011 form if this team wants to move forward in 2012.