Zach Zenner was never supposed to be a No. 1 back in the National Football League.
Somehow, though, that’s where he has found himself; the back that the Detroit Lions are counting on to give the offense a much-needed boost.
Zenner started the season as the No. 4 tailback on the depth chart, behind Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Dwyane Washington. In the NFL, though, it is possible to move up the depth chart in a hurry.
Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, Detroit’s top three backs were all sidelined by injury. That left the No. 1 job open for Zenner, but he still had a competitor with a much bigger name. Realizing how shorthanded his team was in the backfield, general manager Bob Quinn went out and got Justin Forsett.
Forsett had 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens, but a broken arm ruined his 2015 season and he was released three games into this season. Riddick was ready for his Lions debut against the Rams, but Zenner grabbed the job early and didn’t let go. He carried the ball 14 times for 58 yards, just enough to force the Rams to respect the running game.
“He did a nice job,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “Zach is a powerful runner, and he can handle screen passes and running from scrimmage. He’s not flashy, but he’s effective.”
With Los Angeles having to pay attention to Zenner, Golden Tate was finally able to start getting open on the fast-breaking short routes that have become his speciality. After being a non-factor for five games, he had eight catches for 165 yards and a touchdown.
For Zenner, getting a start and playing well was a huge step in a process that has been anything but smooth.
He had a record-setting college career, rushing for 1,998 yards as a sophomore and breaking 2,000 in both his junior and senior years. No one in the NFL paid much attention, though, since he was doing it at Division II South Dakota State. Even in the Dakotas, hardly a hotbed of NFL stars, he had to compete for attention with North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz.
It was somewhat surprising when he wasn’t chosen in the 2015 draft — he was projected to go in the late rounds, especially after running for 202 yards against Nebraska and 103 against Missouri — but he ended up as a undrafted free agent to the Lions.
He did everything he could in the preseason, leading the NFL in rushing and earning a spot on Detroit’s 53-man roster. Early in the season, though, he sustained a season-ending injury when a big hit cracked several lungs and collapsed his lung.
He made the roster again this season, though, and he was ready when he got his chance against the Rams.
“Every player is looking for an opportunity, and I got one today,” he said. “I knew I had to be a playmaker, make people miss and maybe break that last tackle. That’s part of the position, and I was trying to do everything I can.”
It’s not clear how long Washington (ankle) and Riddick (hip) will be sidelined, but Zenner has shown that the Lions can still run the ball without them.