The 2014 NFL Draft helped the case of small school running backs across the board when the Cleveland Browns traded up in the third round to select Towson running back Terrance West. Towson isn't a well-known name in football circles, and the success that West has enjoyed so far in 2014 shows yet again that lesser-known schools can produce solid players. Enter South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner.
While Terrance West was a touchdown machine at Towson, amassing 84 TDs and 4854 yards on 802 rushes for 6.2 yards per carry, Zenner is a bit more pedestrian, with 52 TDs and 5955 yards per carry on 1002 carries for 5.9 yards per carry. The difference between Zenner and West is as a pass-catcher. In college, West had 36 catches for 385 yards, 2 TDs, and 10.7 yards per catch. Zenner has produced 741 yards and 5 TDs on 89 catches with 8.3 yards per catch. West's average numbers were higher, and his TD totals were strikingly higher, but Zenner is used to a heavy workload and is an explosive player. More on that in a moment. Zenner is also experienced as a kick returner, returning 31 kicks for 754 yards and 24.3 yards per return in 2011. That experience might make him more attractive to teams who might draft him.
Zach Zenner has been compared to NFL running backs Donald Brown and Alfred Morris, and is extremely comfortable as a pass protector. In today's NFL, pass protection is one of those abilities that young running backs need to eke out playing time for themselves. If you can't help keep your QB upright on passing plays, you're not going to be trusted on the field for non-passing plays. Zenner is an NFL ready prospect that has, up to now, largely been overlooked by scouts. www.nfldraftscout.com has Zenner ranked as a 6th or 7th round draft pick, and project him to play at fullback at the next level. I think that such a rating is a grave injustice to Zenner's talent level.
Why? The tape speaks for itself. Consider this highlight reel. Zenner proves himself as an explosive running back who is capable of threading the middle of a defense and is always a threat to make a big play. Now you're probably going to tell me "but those highlights were against lesser competition." Ok, here's film of Zenner playing against Nebraska. Still explosive and still dominant. Need I say more? If so, I will.
Did you know that Zach Zenner is only the 2nd player in FCS history to rush for two thousand yards in multiple seasons? What about the fact that Zenner has finished as a finalist twice for the Walter Payton award? Did you know that Zenner is pursuing an intellectually challenging major (pre-medicine/biology) and excelling at it? Zenner is also a multi-sport athlete, having played baseball in high school, and also had a history of strong academic success in high school. I'm not making this stuff up. The guy is extremely talented.
Want some negatives on Zenner? They're tough to come by. Zach Zenner still uses a Samsung flip phone, which suggests an unwillingness to upgrade to modern technology (yes, sarcasm intended). As a high school pitcher, Zenner once struck out 3 times in one game and gave up 8 runs in a single game! South Dakota State loses games when they aren't consistently feeding Zenner the ball (they were beaten by North Dakota State in a game where Zenner only received 8 carries), so if NFL teams forget to give Zenner carries, will they lose games too? Zenner's coach compared him to Carlos Hyde and Terrance West, saying that those were the only two running backs at any level of college football that could compare to him. Neither Hyde or West is an entrenched starter in the NFL yet...although they both may be soon. Zenner played against a lower level of competition.....but I showed you him playing against a higher level team already, didn't I? My point is that Zach Zenner is an extremely solid prospect that should be on every team's radar heading into the draft. The record shows that it's actually pretty tough to dig up negative assessments on Zenner. Consider the following assessment of Zenner by South Dakota State University head coach John Stiegelmeier:
“He’s going to get 5 yards when there’s only 4 to be gotten. … People joke that we have two plays — Zenner left and Zenner right — but I mean, if he’s averaging 5 or 6 yards per carry in a given game, why wouldn’t you do that? The goal is to win the football game.” (John Stiegelmeier)
Want a running back that will immediately help your team if you use him correctly? Draft a Jackrabbit! Draft a man that still uses a flip phone! Draft Zach Zenner! I expect Zenner's draft stock to rise as we move closer to the 2015 NFL Draft, but as that bandwagon grows, remember, we were on it first, and you heard it from me.
Zach Zenner 2015!
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