No 'secret sauce' to Detroit Lions RB Zach Zenner's success
John Stiegelmeier made his way across South Dakota State’s campus one night at his star running back’s request.
Zach Zenner had invited all of his coaches up to one of his dissection labs to see how he spent his free time, and when Stiegelmeier arrived with the Jackrabbits’ team chaplain, they found Zenner and four of his classmates in their element, watching the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” and dissecting cadavers for an anatomy lab.
“They have different areas of the body they look at every week and so the teacher would say, this may be a little gross, but, ‘Zach, we need to look at the brain this week,’ so he would sever the head in half and open it up and label whatever they needed to see,” Stiegelmeier recalled. “He and four other guys, and that was his hobby, if you will. So unbelievable. Unbelievable young man. Ain’t another guy that comes close to doing the things I talk about that Zach Zenner did here.”
Two years after Zenner put together his third straight 2,000-yard rushing season while juggling pre-med classes at South Dakota State, Stiegelmeier still holds the school’s career rusher leader in high regard.
And now that the Lions are preparing to face the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC wild-card game Saturday at CenturyLink Field, he’s excited that the rest of the country will finally be let in on South Dakota State’s secret.
“I’m tickled for him and I’m tickled for his family,” Stiegelmeier said. “I told my wife, because of my profession I don’t watch a lot of pro football, but we watched the last two games and I said, ‘I have the pride of a father.’ I don’t deserve any credit, but I have the pride of a father to watch what he’s done and it really has touched me.”
Zenner has sparked the Lions’ dormant running game with two straight career-best rushing days and he’s expected to play another key role Saturday against the NFL’s seventh-ranked rush defense.
Zenner ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries in a Monday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys the day after Christmas, and last week he closed the regular season with 110 yards from scrimmage — 69 rushing — and another touchdown in a loss to the Green Bay Packers.
A healthy inactive the season’s first two weeks, Zenner has become an indispensable part of the Lions’ offense.
“He’s doing a good job for us,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “Really reliable, consistent, running where he’s supposed to, running where the holes are, running where the defense isn’t. Holding onto the ball better and better, valuable in the pass game, valuable in protection. Does a good job for us and just taking advantage of his opportunity, I think. Playing well.”
Zenner’s ascension comes at a much needed time for a Lions team that’s lost three straight games and has been ravaged by injuries on the offensive side of the ball.
Starting running back Ameer Abdullah underwent foot surgery in September and played in just two games this year. Backup Theo Riddick landed on injured reserve with a wrist injury last week. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is playing through a finger injury that the team insists is a non-issue but statistics say otherwise. And the Lions are awaiting word on whether two of their starting offensive linemen will return Saturday.
“It’s been nice,” Stafford said of the lift Zenner has given the offense the past two weeks. “I think the more successful you can be on the ground the better, especially going to a place like Seattle. It might be cold, might be rainy, might be snowy, whatever it is. Sometimes more difficult to throw the football. So … the more that we can run the ball and really just the more efficiently and better we can run the ball is best.”
Despite limited playing time, Zenner finished second on the Lions with 334 yards rushing and led the team with four rushing touchdowns this year.
No one is comparing him to Adrian Peterson in his prime, but Zenner’s success doesn’t surprise Stiegelmeier or anyone else who’s followed his career.
Beyond the 6,500 yards and 61 touchdowns he ran for in college, Zenner, who signed with the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2015, was the preseason rushing champion last year.
He played sparingly as a rookie, but had just earned spot in the backfield rotation when he cracked four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung that ended his season.
This year, Zenner played well again in the preseason, but toiled on the bench to start the year behind Abdullah, Riddick and rookie Dwayne Washington.
He said he stayed patient, contributed on special teams, and when the opportunity came to play a bigger role on offense after Washington struggled, Zenner said he succeeded because of his teammates and his faith.
“I think there isn’t really a secret sauce,” Zenner said. “Aside from that, just coming to work every day. No matter what the situation is, you can just look at how the season started, my preparation didn’t change. I’m doing everything the same now that I was at the beginning of the season.”
Except now, of course, he’s being rewarded with carries.
“It means a lot,” Zenner said. “It means a lot from the coaching side of it, that they’re willing to give me this opportunity and also it just means a lot for my career as a player just being able to come in here and have ample opportunities to show what I can do.”
Contact Dave Birkett: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.