Lions running back Zach Zenner a rare breed

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Zach Zenner had a lot of favorite running backs growing up. Living in a suburb of Minneapolis, Zenner said former Vikings star Robert Smith was one playe he admired as a child. Then, when Minnesota added Adrian Peterson in 2007, Zenner watched him closely.

The Lions running back also enjoyed watching LaDainian Tomlinson, Marshall Faulk and Eddie George, noting his memory of the 2000 Super Bowl when Faulk’s Rams beat George’s Titans. Zenner was a fan of Ray Rice, too, for his on-field deeds, and has watched historical performers like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson.

For many children, natural role models are often people that look similar to them, but there have been few successful white running backs in the NFL in recent years. All 32 projected starting running backs in 2015 are black.

Looking different than many of the other people at his position isn’t something Zenner thinks about, but if he makes the Lions’ 53-man roster this year, he’ll be a rare breed among backs.

Based on training camp and two preseason games, the undrafted rookie looks capable of having a career in the NFL, though he likely has to improve on special teams to beat out George Winn to stay in Detroit. And he has the elite athleticism that should help him avoid some of the stereotypical phrases often associated with white athletes in predominantly black sports, like scrappy, gritty or high motor.

“That’s just one of those things that maybe other people’s opinions or judgments maybe are a little different, but that’s out of my control, just like people’s opinions about me before the draft and during all those processes are out of my control,” Zenner said Friday, a day after finishing with 81 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against in an exhibition loss to Washington. “And it’s just my job to worry about what I can control, which is what I put out on the practice field.”

'We don't care about color'

There’s nothing sneaky or deceptive about Zenner’s athleticism. His SPARQ score, which is a composite grade based on combine and pro day testing, ranked him seventh among draft eligible running backs — teammate Ameer Abdullah ranked first — and in the 81st percentile of active NFL players at the position.

A consensus All-American in each of his last three years at South Dakota State, Zenner ran for at least 2,000 yards from 2012-14 and displayed a one-cut running style with which he combined speed, power and vision.

Although Zenner (5-11, 222 pounds) played in the Football Championship Subdivision, draft analysts Lance Zierlein of and Dane Brugler of CBS Sports projected him to go in the fifth or sixth round.

Zenner went undrafted and the Lions made signing him a priority.

“You may look at his as an anomaly, but what we look at him is just simply as guys that play the position,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “We don’t care about color, OK? If he can run, he can make you miss, he can run over you, he can pass protect, he can do all those things, (then) we don’t care what color he is.”

'Doc' Zenner 

Growing up, Zenner didn’t want to play other positions.

“I’ve been a running back my whole life,” he said. “I was fast enough to be one when I played little league, and I just kind of continued on since then."

Zach Zenner had 30 yards on 10 carries in Week 5.

He’s managed to avoid some of the popular nicknames bestowed upon white skill position players. Jacksonville running back Toby Gerhart’s moniker is the “White Rhino.” Green Bay star receiver Jordy Nelson goes by “White Lightning.” A few years ago, former Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, as well as some teammates, called Lance Long the “Vanilla Gorilla.”

Instead, Zenner said most of his nicknames have been related to his name — Double Z or Z-squared. His fellow running backs call him “Doc” because of his aspirations to go to medical school after his football career.

“If they did, I didn’t stick on it,” Zenner said of people using stereotypes to describe him. “That’s not something I really worry about, to be honest.”

In 39 years of coaching, Caldwell said, he’s never heard people use the buzzwords fans or media often use to describe players of different races. And as Zenner tries to prove himself in the NFL, he won’t be comparing himself to anyone else.

“I respect a lot of different running backs, but I’m trying to take from everyone’s game,” he said.