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THE PERFORMANCE WAS, IN MANY WAYS, THE ANTITHESIS OF VANDERBILT FOOTBALL: eye-catching and dominant. Yet there was Commodores running back Zac Stacy, a junior in his first season as a starter in Nashville, putting a bow on a superb 2011 campaign with a 184-yard showing against Wake Forest. The game gave Stacy 1,136 yards for the regular season, good for a team single-season record and eclipsing Corey Harris's 1,103 in 1991.
"You look back and have that 'wow' moment," says Stacy, who rushed for 57 yards in Vanderbilt's bowl game against Cincinnati to finish at 1,193. "Gaining 1,000 yards, having the success I had last year, it's hard, especially when you compete against NFL-type bodies every week. [Now] I'm just worried about winning."
In the past half century the Commodores have never opened a season with a running back as prolific as Stacy, who will start in the backfield as the SEC's leading returning rusher. "Obviously Zac's got a head start based on what he did last year, the confidence of breaking the single-season rushing record," coach James Franklin says. "But he also understands that 70 percent of those yards came from the offensive line."
After a sluggish start last fall, Stacy broke out in the season's second half, racking up three rushing touchdowns each against Army, Kentucky and Wake Forest. On one play in the 38--8 drubbing of the Wildcats, Stacy carried not one but five defenders for several yards into the end zone.
"The real breaking point for me was realizing my actual mentality of needing to step it up as a player, step it up as a leader," says Stacy, who wound up with 14 touchdowns, another Vanderbilt record. "To put my team in the best possible situation to be successful."
Now he's a known commodity, but previously the 5' 9", 210-pound tailback thrived as somewhat of a hidden gem. Despite rushing for 2,413 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior at Bibb County (Ala.) High in 2008, Stacy went largely unpursued by major-college programs—that is, until Vanderbilt came calling. The school presented the opportunity for Stacy to blossom in his football career, while also giving him the chance to tap into another passion. His younger brother, Justin, was born with Down syndrome; Zac, a special-education major, spends time student teaching in Nashville-area elementary schools with disabled children while working toward his degree from Vanderbilt's Peabody College. Stacy views his Vanderbilt experience as "the best of both worlds: competing in the SEC and getting a world-class education."
Though Stacy naturally dreams of reaching the NFL, he also has his sights on becoming a special-education instructor or a school principal helping students like his brother. "That's one of the reasons I chose to get an education," says Stacy, who adds that Justin is a motivator not just in the classroom but on the field as well: "Every time I have the ball in hand, I think of him wanting to be successful and having my back."
Stacy was a major reason the Commodores won four more games last season than in 2010, and he expects the improvement to continue. "Comparing where we were last year to where we are this year, we look so organized and so far ahead," he says. "I feel like we're heading in the right direction." Not just the team, but Stacy too.