A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Frequently, you’ll hear members of the media say that when NFL scouts are looking at small school talent, they want to see the player dominate the competition.
South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner didn’t just dominate the competition; he re-wrote the record books.
Late Saturday night after the completion of the three-day marathon that is the NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions nabbed the undrafted Zenner to a rookie free agent deal.
It was somewhat of a surprise that Zenner was passed over during the draft. NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein projected the Minnesota native as a fifth or sixth round prospect and ESPN’s Todd McShay, head of Scouts Inc. gave Zenner a sixth round grade.
But the South Dakota State star was continuously passed over on Saturday afternoon, despite becoming the first back in Division I football history to rush for over 2,000 yards in three straight seasons.
Yes he faced lesser competition playing in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), formally Division I-AA. However, Zenner also dominated in his three matchups against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools.
In 2012, he touched up Kansas for 183 rushing yards on 23 attempts (7.96 yards per carry) including a 99-yard TD.
As a junior, Zenner torched Nebraska for 202 yards on 21 rushes (9.6 YPC) and two TDs. And last season against Missouri, he posted 103 rushing yards and a TD on 17 carries (6.1 YPC), with seven grabs for an additional 41 yards.
Zenner proved to be a big play threat throughout his career, routinely breaking off long TD runs. He scored five TDs of 67 yards or more as a senior.
The 5-foot-11.5, 223-pound Zenner holds a handful of impressive athletic traits if you look at his spider graph. Zenner’s pSPARQ score—Nike’s training score combining speed, power, agility, reaction, and quickness in an attempt to quantify athleticism by factoring in each combine/pro day test along with the players’ weight—ranks seventh out of 160 draft eligible running backs this year. This places him in the 81st percentile among all NFL RBs (Lions second round pick Ameer Abdullah ranks in the 97th percentile).
I studied three full games from Zenner to see why he was a nightmare for opposing defenses and what he can bring to Detroit’s backfield.
Patience and vision
Zenner ran mostly out of the spread and from the I-formation at South Dakota State, where they used zone-blocking schemes as well as power plays up the gut. He fits the Lions mold as a decisive, one-cut, north-south runner.
Zenner consistently shows the patience to allow blocks to develop, and the vision to find seams in the defense. Though he often plays at one speed once he makes his initial read, Zenner is excellent behind the line of scrimmage at taking small, quick steps to set up the play before bursting through the hole.
Against Northern Arizona in the 2013 playoffs, Zenner displays advanced press and cut principles by disguising his intended running lane and allowing his lineman to engage the defense. With Zenner leaning inside, the edge defender dips slightly inside and the pulling guard smothers him, opening up a huge lane in the c-gap for Zenner to exploit.
This next run in the 2014 playoffs against Montana Sate was phenomenal. Zenner slows to allow the offensive line to wash the defenders past him, uses his well-oiled left-handed stiff arm and runs away from the defense for a game-sealing 69-yard TD.
In the snow, Zenner rushed 23 times for 252 yards and four scores, and added a 69-yard receiving TD (keep reading to see that one). Zenner benefited from solid run blocking by the offensive line on that particular play, but I marked him down for nine broken tackles and an incredible 194 yards after contact in the game.
Another important trait Zenner demonstrates is his ability to sift through a muddied line of scrimmage and sliver through small cracks in the defense.
His ability to ‘get skinny’ through the hole and pick his way through trash is really impressive and it constantly shows up on tape.
Zenner won’t blow away NFL defenders with his speed, but at the collegiate level, he was rarely caught from behind. He has enough juice to gain the edge and the speed to eliminate pursuit angles. Notice Zenner’s press and cut principles again here, forcing the linebacker to take a step inside which opens up the c-gap for the quick back.
He splits the secondary of Nebraska on this 40-yard TD scamper.
Here he shows his combination of strength and speed. He shoots around the defensive end and then surprisingly erases the angles of both the corner and safety for a 35-yard pickup.
Against the Cornhuskers, Zenner forced six missed tackles and gained 114 yards after contact (including 36 on the play above).
Running through contact
Zenner is a tough physical runner who keeps his legs churning on contact and often falls forward. He doesn’t overpower defenders in tight spaces, but he runs hard, gives great effort and possesses a sturdy frame that helps him absorb contact.
This is one of my favorite runs from Zenner despite the shoddy tackling. He pinballs off four defenders while protecting the ball with both arms.
Imagine hearing Chris Berman accompany this highlight with his patented “boom, boom” sound effect as defenders bounce off this gladiator of a RB.
Here’s another physical run from Zenner as he subtly cuts right, plows through one defender and absorbs two more hits to cross the goal line.
Zenner runs high-cut at times but the strength, balance and competitiveness is there for him to win in short yardage.
Zenner amassed 95 receptions for 909 yards and eight TDs in four seasons. In the games I watched, he was mostly used on screens and swing passes, though I did see him line up in the slot once.
He showed his propensity to make big plays in the passing game, taking this swing pass 69 yards for the score. Watch how he sets up his receivers’ block. The safety (No. 22) takes a poor angle because Zenner presses inside before veering to the sideline. This is great instincts and impressive home run speed in poor conditions.
Zenner is aware, balanced and aggressive in pass protection. Though he was unable to stifle the defender on a few assignments, he was in excellent position and was technically sound in the games that I watched. He levels the blitzing linebacker with a well-executed cut block on this play.
Where Zenner struggles is with his agility and elusiveness in space. His hips and ankles are somewhat stiff, limiting his ‘make you miss’ ability. That’s not to say that he can’t break down and change direction. He can make one cut and side step a defender, however he isn’t going to juke many NFL defenders.
He has trouble layering a second cut after his initial move. Here he makes one cut but is unable to string multiple moves together and cannot take advantage of the open running lane.
Zenner is sure-handed with the football, keeping it high-and-tight especially when he anticipates contact. He fumbled just once on 365 touches as a senior, and put the ball on the ground just nine times on 1,210 career offensive touches, a career fumble rate of 1 per 134.4 offensive touch.
He proved to be a durable, workhorse back by playing in all 52 Jackrabbit games, while posting three straight seasons of 300-plus carries. This begs the question of how much mileage Zenner has left. The positive is that he almost certainly will never be asked to carry an offense in the pros, so he should stay relatively fresh.
Zenner also brings some return experience, returning 31 kickoffs for 754 yards (24.3 average) as a freshman. He did not play on kick coverage during his final three seasons but must prove he can be a core special teams player in order to make the Lions 53-man roster. Even then, he will not see the 46-man game day roster unless one of the three running backs ahead of him goes down.
Like every other rookie, Zenner must see his skills translate to the NFL. Yet despite the level of competition at which he played his college ball, most seem to agree that he has a real shot at edging out George Winn and earning a roster spot if the team decides to keep four RBs. I’ve seen some people mention that the Lions should move Zenner to fullback, but they just drafted a fullback and Zenner is not a lead-blocker anyway.
As for the practice squad, he may be too talented to sit there all season without some team wanting to give him a shot.
Though it’s unlikely that he sees the field on offense this season, if Zenner can continue to develop and add value elsewhere as a special teamer, he has a real chance to stick and make an impact in 2016.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game footage. All GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the Free Press.