Zac Stacy is pushing forward at Vanderbilt

Zac Stacy had the chance to play ultimate hero a little more than three months ago. We’re talking legend material as far as Vanderbilt football is concerned.

With the Commodores leading then No. 10 Arkansas 28-20 early in the fourth quarter and facing a second-and-goal at the Razorbacks’ 3-yard line, Vanderbilt’s running back, who three plays earlier had put Vanderbilt in scoring position with a 44-yard reception, took the safe handoff, lowered his head and charged toward the end zone.

However, just before Stacy could truly get going, his grip loosened. He was stripped of the ball and watched Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin chug 94 yards the other way for a touchdown.

Arkansas tied the game with a two-point conversation and eventually won on a 42-yard Zach Hocker field goal.

Vandy’s chance at a historic upset had slipped away in a matter of only a few plays.

Stacy could have easily caved and taken to major self-loathing, but he didn’t. As hard as it was, he managed to put that game behind him and focus on tasks ahead.

“That’s the mentality that I had,” Stacy said.

“If I could go back to that game, I would, because that could have been a ‘W’ in our book. But at that same time, you can’t [dwell] on that loss, on that mistake, you have to do what’s best for your team and get better for the next game.”

It worked for Stacy, as he rushed for 486 yards and eight touchdowns in Vandy’s final five games. He also had a tremendous 184-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Commodores’ win over Wake Forest to clinch a bowl berth for the first time since 2008.

Stacy’s impressive end-of-season run capped one of the best seasons for an SEC running back. A year removed from handling just 66 carries, Stacy finished the 2011 season No. 3 in the SEC in rushing with 1,193 yards and was second (behind only Trent Richardson) in touchdowns (14). He also averaged 5.7 yards per carry in league play.

Stacy, who will be a senior this fall, enjoyed quite the breakout year, but he says there wasn’t much he changed with his preseason preparation to get him going. The extra reps he received with former starter Warren Norman sidelined with a knee injury helped, but even before Norman went down, Stacy says he practiced and worked out as if he were the starter.

Once the coaches gained more trust in his abilities, Stacy was off and running (literally).

“It was just one of those things where you had to step up,” Stacy said.

“It really wasn’t anything I was doing specifically. Every guy each year gets faster, stronger and mentally ready for the season. It was one of those things when your name is called and you have to step up.”

With Stacy humming like a brand-new car, the Commodores found some explosion in their offense. And as defenses paid more attention to him the offense opened up.

Vanderbilt, which had been mired in offensive ineptitude before 2011, finished the year seventh in the SEC in total offense. Stacy was the catalyst, but he says it was a total team effort. As the season went on and players were getting more comfortable with new coach James Franklin and his offensive staff, Stacy said people started taking on more responsibility and everyone held each other accountable.

“It wasn’t exactly me clicking,” Stacy said, “it was just that the whole team began to click.”

Now, Vandy enters spring with unusually high expectations after a bowl year. People won’t take the Commodores lightly this time, but Stacy insists that neither he nor his teammates have to change their approach. There are silly mistakes that have to be eliminated, but that comes with better execution and discipline, which will no doubt be stressed during a tougher offseason in Nashville.

Change came last year for the Commodores, and Stacy said the next step is just building off of it.

“We’re not going to change. We’re just going to be who we are,” he said. “We’re going to be Vanderbilt football and execute in all phases of the game -- offense, special teams, defense -- and everything will fall in place.”