Lions’ Zenner puts versatility on display

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
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Landover, Md. — Zach Zenner isn’t making plans to be in Detroit in September just yet, but if he continues to play like he did in Thursday’s 21-17 exhibition loss to Washington, he’ll probably end up being one of the team’s final 53 players to open the season.

On a night the Lions run game struggled, with just 46 yards on 13 carries, Zenner still managed to flash his combination of vision and elite athleticism for his position.

An undrafted rookie from South Dakota State, Zenner finished with 22 yards on four carries and was the only Lions running back to average more than the benchmark 4 yards per carry. His numbers would’ve been better if he didn’t have a 45-yard run called back due to a holding penalty. He also had five receptions for 59 yards, including a 36-yarder, and a touchdown.

“I mean, it can’t hurt,” Zenner said of how the splash plays impact his roster standing. “But at the same time, the offensive line did a great job. I think a lot of people could’ve ran through that hole on the long run and a lot of people could’ve caught that ball that I was wide open on. Dan (Orlovsky) did a nice job setting me up for that play.”

Zenner can deflect all he wants, but when the coaches watch the film, they’ll see a player successful at making defenders miss, even if it was against Washington’s backups.

“You can tell he’s got something,” coach Jim Caldwell said. ‘He’s got a very unusual kind of a running style. He’s got power, and he can make you miss. He can catch the ball. He’s a good pass protector and he keeps getting better all the time.”

Zenner’s receiving skills weren’t on display as much in the first exhibition game. Against the New York Jets last week, he had 55 yards on 13 carries but just a 1-yard reception.

To make the team, Zenner understands he has to shine as a runner, receiver, blocker and special teams performer. With George Winn likely his direct competition to make the 53-man roster, special teams will be extremely important. Caldwell called Zenner a “solid performer” on special teams, but Zenner admitted he could’ve made a better block during one kickoff return.

“Special teams is new for me, so I need to work hard to do well in that area,” he said. “There’s certainly a lot of room to improve in that area as well.”

Orlovsky said Zenner has done well since joining the Lions, pointing to running backs coach Curtis Modkins as someone who’s helped that group as a whole. For Orlovsky, Zenner’s vision, intelligence and reliability in the passing game has stood out, and a couple more strong exhibition games could land him a job for the season.

“I try to tell these young kids to stack good days,” Orlovsky said. “He continues to stack good things upon good things, and that’s a good sign.”

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