Every year there is a handful of undrafted players who find themselves on NFL rosters and make an impact for their respective teams. For the Detroit Lions, they may have found a guy, even if it is at a position they seemed to be set on.
The potential backfield of Joique Bell (also an undrafted player), Theo Riddick, and Ameer Abdullah was enough to get a lot of people in the football world excited about the Lions’ potential at the position, but through two games this preseason, another name has lowered his shoulder and forced his way into the conversation.
It’s easy to criticize the success a player enjoys while playing at the ‘lesser level’ of Division I, but regardless of the competition the success Zach Zenner had while at South Dakota State was enough for the Lions to extend an offer to come to training camp.
Standing at a compact 5’11” 223 pounds, Zenner became the first player in college football history to run for 2,000 yards in three separate seasons – doing so his final three years while playing for South Dakota State.
In the time of players getting millions and millions of dollars worth of bonuses before even stepping on the field, Zenner received just $5,000 to come to camp, with a very small opportunity to make the team. Detroit had just invested a second pick on Abdullah in the most recent draft.
Zach Zenner Lowers Shoulder Into Running Back Race
Competing with George Winn and Desmond Martin for a fourth running back spot that, depending on the health of Bell heading into the regular season, may not exist, Zenner has continued to stand out whether it be in practice or in live action.
“He’s fun to watch,” said head coach Jim Caldwell in an article on the team’s website. “You can see he can bang it up in there, and he’s got vision and he’s deceptive. You can see him accelerate through a hole with a good forward lean. Has some pop behind him. He’s fun to watch.”
Zenner has taken that mentality onto the field this preseason, carrying the ball 13 times in their opener against the New York Jets for a total of 55 yards. While he didn’t touch the ball as many times in their second game against the Washington Redskins, he showed that he has some big-play potential, and isn’t solely a plodding power back.
On the ground, Zenner toted the ball four times for a total of 22 yards which include a long of 14. His big contribution came in the passing game, leading the team in receptions and yards. He would go on to grab five passes for a total of 59 yards, which included a five-yard touchdown and a long of 36 yards.
A penalty against the Lions prevented Zenner from having an even bigger game, as he had a 45 yard scamper called back.
With the offensive game plan expected to be divided up between the top three backs – each bring their own respective skill-set to the table – keeping a fourth running back realistically only makes sense if that player can contribute on special teams.
Zenner’s compact size, and aggressive straight-line running seems like a good fit for special teams, giving him just as good a shot to make the team and Winn and Martin. Big games offensively like he had against the Redskins can only help.