The last two weeks, the holes have been bigger, the lanes wider.
Zac Stacy has noticed — and he hasn’t wasted the opportunities. If the gaps continue to come open, the Vanderbilt running back might just join elite company.
Heading into Saturday’s home against No. 8 Arkansas (6-1, 2-1 SEC), Stacy has rushed for 579 yards, which already is a career-high for the junior with five regular-season games left.
He is on pace to finish with 992 rushing yards — just eight shy of becoming the fourth Vanderbilt player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season. The Commodores haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Jermaine Johnson ran for 1,072 in 1995. Corey Harris holds the single-season record with 1,103 in 1991.
“The 1,000 yards would be the icing on the cake,” Stacy said. “But our main goal is being successful out there on Saturdays. Hopefully, get this thing turned around so we can be successful in the long run as well.”
The running game did an about face after consecutive games of being nearly nonexistent. Against the stout defensive lines of South Carolina and Alabama, the Commodores netted just 45 rushing yards, including four against South Carolina. Stacy had a total of 11 carries for only 21 yards during the stretch.
That after Vanderbilt (4-3, 1-3) rushed for more than 100 yards in each of its first three games, which included 281 rushing yards against Ole Miss when Stacy ripped off a career-long 77-yard touchdown run on his way to 169 yards on 18 carries.
Through those first five games, the offensive line had rotated key cogs in and out due to injury or illness. Playing the third-ranked rushing defense in the SEC, Vanderbilt figured to have the same luck against Georgia. But the windows began to open as the offensive line played its second straight game with Logan Stewart in the starting lineup at center.
“The more they get better, which they are going to get better — trust me those guys get better each and every week — the more confidence we have running the ball and even passing as well,” Stacy said of the offensive line.
Stacy rushed for 97 yards and quarterback Jordan Rodgers added another 80 as the Commodores reached an even 200 against Georgia. Then last week Stacy broke loose, setting a career-high against Army with 198 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns — the first Vanderbilt player to achieve the feat since 2007. The Commodores finished with 344 rushing yards, their most in two years.
“Basically the same guys have been playing and we have created a little bit of [offensive line] depth as well," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I think Jordan coming into the game, and he has been able to eliminate some of the sacks with his feet, making people miss and turning some negative yardage plays into some positive yardage plays. I think that has helped us as well.”
Amidst the improvement, Stacy has been the go-to guy.
The 5-foot-9, 208-pounder totaled 809 rushing yards the last two years behind Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year. The duo, which met during a football camp in high school and considers themselves as close as brothers, nearly split the carries last season (78-77 in favor of Stacy) as both missed time due to injuries.
Stacy figured to assume the same role this year, but Norman has not played after undergoing offseason knee surgery and is expected to redshirt. Then, the coaches moved Wesley Tate from the backfield to wide receiver, leaving Stacy and true freshman Jerron Seymour with the rushing responsibilities.
Slowly, Stacy has taken on more of the workload. Franklin said that can change game to game, especially if Vanderbilt is trying to come back from a large deficit and must abandon the run and turn to the passing game.
The last two weeks that hasn’t been necessary. Stacy touched the ball 21 times — the most carries of his career — against Army and took 17 handoffs the week before. His 198 rushing yards against Georgia was the third-highest performance in school history.
“He is a playmaker,” Rodgers said. “He is unbelievable. He made some runs out there that were great. ... Some of the cuts Zac makes after the initial cut into the hole have been unbelievable. He is such a strong runner. One of his runs I believe [against Army], he had four or five guys that he got past and ended up diving into the end zone. He gives a 100 percent effort on every play. He is a guy that really sets the tone for our offense.”
Stacy, a native of Centreville, Ala., also has been fortunate to elude injuries. As a freshman, an ankle injury caused him to miss two games. Then last year, he suffered a blow against Florida, leaving him unconscious for several seconds. It cut his season short as he missed the last three games.
After a summer dedicated to improving his strength and explosiveness, the results are starting to show —even if the selfless Stacy doesn’t put much stock into individual numbers.
“There is always room for improvement. There is always room to get better,” he said. “All the way up to now I would say it has been a lot of fun. It has also been a learning experience as well. We are just going to keep building on that.”