ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Rams called upon rookie running back Zac Stacy to carry a heavy workload last season. Now he’ll have some heavy hardware to carry back home because of it.
The 2013 fifth-round draft pick from Vanderbilt was honored with the Carroll Rosenbloom Memorial Award, which is given annually to the team’s top rookie performer, at the team’s final meeting last week.
"It just means a lot just from the standpoint of it’s a long season and we went through a lot of adversity throughout the season," Stacy says. "But it all started up front with those guys. My whole mentality coming into this thing was just helping this team to be successful anyway I could."
There was some good competition this season for the award. Linebacker Alec Ogletree led the Rams with 117 tackles and was among the NFL leaders with six forced fumbles. Wide receiver/returner Tavon Austin was second on the team in scoring with six touchdowns (four receiving, one rushing and one return) and second in receiving with 40 receptions.
But it was Stacy, the compact 5-foot-8, 224-pounder, who made the biggest difference in the Rams’ 7-9 season after Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead failed to take the starting spot and run with it early on.
Stacy started the final 12 games — St. Louis went 6-6 in his starts — and rushed for 973 yards and scored a team-high eight touchdowns (seven rushing, one receiving).
"I was given an opportunity and just took advantage of it," Stacy says. "The main thing from this standpoint is we did a lot of good things from an individual standpoint but there’s so much I can do better, so much I want to improve in the off-season, doing all the little things. From that standpoint, it’s been a great season. It went by a little slow. It went by a little fast at the same time."
Stacy’s 973 yards rushing ranked 14th in the NFL and second among rookies, trailing only Eddie Lacy of Green Bay and his 1,178 rushing yards.
Stacy’s eight touchdowns were tied with San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell and Cincinnati running back Giovani Bernard for third among rookies. Lacy scored 11 and Minnesota wide receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson scored nine.
That’s not bad considering Stacy, the 160th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, was selected later than all of those players. Patterson was a first-round pick, followed by second-rounders Bernard, Bell and Lacy and third-rounder Allen.
The Rams look like they stole a keeper in the fifth round.
Though the St. Louis rushing game was stifled by Seattle in the season finale, when Stacy ran for just 15 yards on 15 carries, the rookie still averaged 80.75 yards rushing in his 12 starts. That was the fifth-best mark in the league, behind only Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (100.4), Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (90.4), Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (85.8) and Chicago’s Matt Forte (83.7).
"It’s really all about opportunities," Stacy says. "I was given an opportunity (in the) fifth or sixth game, I’m not sure, and pretty much just took advantage of it. There’s really no secret sauce to what I’m doing.
"Obviously, it started up front with the offensive line and just being a pro about yourself. Staying that extra hour after film watching tape, staying that extra hour or 30 minutes after practice working on your footwork and craft and stuff like that. That’s one thing I’ve taken from guys like Chris Long and James Laurinaitis. One thing they’ve told me is just be a true pro about yourself — eat right, take care of your body, little things like that."
Stacy answered whatever questions remained following the off-season departure of Steven Jackson to Atlanta as a free agent.
Jackson recorded eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the Rams from 2005-12. He rushed for 543 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry, and scored seven total touchdowns in 12 games for the Falcons this season.
Jackson proved to be a workhorse in St. Louis, but Stacy’s production was right in line with the former Pro Bowl pick considering the rookie had just one carry in the first four weeks.
Stacy’s 3.9 yards per carry for the season, which was 4.1 going into the Seattle game, is less than the 4.2 that Jackson averaged during his time in St. Louis. But Stacy’s ability around the goal line was an upgrade. Jackson scored fewer than eight touchdowns in each of his final four years with the Rams — only four in 2012.
This isn’t to say Stacy is better than Jackson or will be going forward. But a capable replacement? Definitely.
Now the challenge will be for Stacy to work in the off-season to come back even stronger for his sophomore season. How, exactly?
"Getting a better grasp of the playbook," he says. "Obviously, getting faster and stronger. It’s a long season, as I’ve learned from a rookie standpoint. You have to be able to take care of your body as well. Just doing all the little things right from a weight room standpoint, flexibility and all that stuff."
The season-ending loss in Seattle and the inability for the Rams to run the ball will motivate Stacy throughout the off-season. He’s also well aware that the Rams are hungry to get back to the winning ways and playoff appearances of yesteryear.
"Obviously, we had a little adversity this season and with that we learned and we know what’s at stake," Stacy says. "We’re going to put a lot of expectations on ourselves. We had high expectations this year, obviously, but stakes are going to be even higher. A lot of spectators and stuff claimed that we were young, which we were, but we’re not young anymore and that’s not going to be an excuse for us."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.