ST. LOUIS — The bar has been raised for Zac Stacy. Again.
It’s nothing new for the Rams’ second-year running back, whose only Division I scholarship offers came from UAB and Vanderbilt after he rushed for more than 2,400 yards and scored 35 touchdowns as a senior at Bibb County High in Alabama. He slowly worked his way up the depth chart at Vandy before rushing for a school-record 1,193 yards as a junior.
The career record fell in his equally stellar senior season, but St. Louis didn’t take Stacy until late in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Four other SEC running backs had already been chosen and the 5-foot-9, 210-pound workhorse got only one carry in his first four NFL games.
"That’s just one thing you can’t control as far as the (recruiting) rankings, where you get drafted, things like that," Stacy said after the final day of training camp Wednesday. "The only thing you control is just being the best football player you can be mentally, physically, just off the field as well."
It’s easy to see why that approach kept Stacy prepared when coaches finally called his name against Jacksonville in Week 5, and he responded with team highs of 14 carries and 78 yards in a 34-20 win. A week later he racked up 79 more yards to help the Rams rout the Texans and solidify his spot as the feature back, a title he’s never really been in danger of losing since.
Coach Jeff Fisher reaffirmed his commitment to Stacy a week ago, when he told reporters, "He’s our running back." Benny Cunningham has certainly done some positive things this preseason and should see a few carries, but the bulk of the workload will fall on Stacy’s broad shoulders.
As anyone who has watched "Spiderman" knows, a position of power like feature tailback in the NFL means more responsibilities for Stacy this season. He said his year as a senior captain at Vanderbilt prepared him to go beyond just working hard and setting the example for his teammates in 2014.
"I think it’s kind of that time to emerge as a leader, just speaking from the standpoint of knowing the expectations," Stacy said. "But just as far as having that experience, knowing what to expect and having just a little glimpse on things, I think I can see myself as having more of a leadership role."
He’s also put an emphasis this preseason on becoming a more versatile player, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Fisher. A better understanding of the playbook should improve Stacy’s efficiency as a blocker and a receiver in the passing game, while consistency will remain his greatest asset.
In fact, from watching just the top two or three highlights from each of the Rams’ running backs this preseason, one might wonder why rookie Tre Mason has barely gotten any practice reps with the first team. The explosiveness he showed as a Heisman finalist at Auburn has been on display occasionally in two games that saw him get 27 carries, more than twice as many as any other back.
Still, an average of just three yards per carry isn’t the way to move up a depth chart, and even brighter red flags have been raised when he’s asked to block. Fisher expressed some serious concerns after two failed assignments resulted in sacks last Saturday against the Packers, and Mason didn’t shy away from taking responsibility on Wednesday.
"I messed up two blitzes, but that’s not going to be a problem anymore for me," Mason said. "I know I’m a physical player. At certain times I need to be more physical."
Fixing that problem could be easier said than done, considering Mason almost never was asked to protect the passer outside of practice as a key part of an Auburn offense that ran over Missouri and nearly everyone else on its way to the SEC title.
As a result, the Rams’ third-round pick could find himself in about the same spot Stacy was prior to the season opener last year — and the possibility of Mason seeing similar growth shouldn’t be ruled out. But for now Stacy clearly has the upper hand, as was the case when he rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown in Vandy’s 17-13 win over Mason’s Tigers in 2012.
"He always brags on that," Mason said, noting the two were roommates at camp. "He got us that game."
Individual numbers don’t mean much to Stacy, who fell just short of giving the Rams a 1,000-yard rusher for the ninth straight season, gaining 973 in basically 12 games. He’s more focused on steady improvement and reliability, even if he’s not one of the league’s flashiest runners.
Long before he made it to the pros, Stacy tried to model his game after Baltimore’s Ray Rice, a three-time Pro Bowler with a similar body type and an enviable reputation for consistent production. Despite getting to the top of the Rams’ depth chart, Stacy will have to defy plenty more expectations to reach the level of other tailbacks he admires, including Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
"I do want to be at that level someday," he said. "But right now I’ve still got a lot to do."
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.