Zenner tries to make his mark in unsettled Lions backfield

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Lions running back Zach Zenner takes the ball upfield during drills.

Lions running back Zach Zenner suffered a season-ending injury on the 19th touch of his rookie season, but it’d be wrong to say that last year’s preseason darling is injury-prone.

“I just got pressed between two guys, took a big hit and my pads didn’t take any of the hit,” he said Thursday. “It was all on my ribs.

“When you listen, you don’t hear a pop of any pads because it hit all flesh. It hit all my chest cavity, and my chest cavity compressed. And actually you come back stronger from the bones breaking.”

And if Zenner indeed comes back stronger in 2016, it could be just the boost the Lions need in a backfield filled with question marks.

Atop the depth chart, the Lions have Ameer Abdullah, who hasn’t practiced this offseason while recovering from shoulder surgery. Abdullah was solid as a rookie, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, but considering he had just 8.9 carries per game, there’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly receive all the handoffs.

Theo Riddick, a sensational receiver, could be more involved in the run game, too, but he has yet to prove he can be a reliable runner with a 2.9-yard average for his career.

Stevan Ridley has the best NFL credentials with a 1,263-yard performance for New England in 2012, but he played just 14 total games the last two years due to a knee injury.

George Winn has just 23 career carries with a 3.2-yard average. Rookie Dwayne Washington has the athleticism to contribute, but the seventh-round pick had fumbling issues in college that have already resurfaced in his two weeks with the team.

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Then, there’s Zenner, who went undrafted last year and made the Lions’ 53-man roster thanks to a stunning preseason performance with 249 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in four exhibitions.

Zenner’s opportunity came sooner than he expected as he had two carries — gaining just 6 yards — in Week 1 last year. Then, as Joique Bell nursed an injury and Abdullah dealt with fumbling issues, Zenner saw more time, with another two carries and a catch in Week 4.

Then, in Week 5, Zenner had season highs of 10 carries for 30 yards and added a 7-yard catch. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but he looked to be a factor in the offense again in Week 6 with three carries for 15 yards before two Bears players cracked his ribs.

“The hardest part to accept was the fact that I had worked for a long time to get to that point, and then it was gone in one play,” he said.

As painful as fractured ribs sound, Zenner was actually healthy before the end of the season. But because he was on injured reserve, he took his time recovering, something that wasn’t an option while running for 2,000-plus yards in three straight seasons at South Dakota State.

Zenner said he lost more weight than he usually would during the early portion of the offseason, but he’s back near the 220 pounds he wants to be.

And because Abdullah has been out all offseason and Ridley has been sidelined the past few weeks, Zenner has had ample opportunities in practice, though it’s hard for backs to impress much without pads.

“I think anytime you can get in and get reps it’s going to help you,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “So, I think he’s a bit more familiar from an application process of what we’re doing, and I think that’s going to help him.”

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Zenner said his familiarity with life in general is better, too. Last year, everything was new for Zenner, from the NFL game to his living situation. Now, he’s comfortable and ready to perform, and Abdullah said Zenner can do “anything he sets his mind to.”

“When he’s on the field, he’s going to make a play,” Abdullah said.

Obviously, what Abdullah does could impact how many opportunities Zenner has to impress. And even though Zenner proved himself a bit last year, he hasn’t reached the point where he’s secure in his job.

“I think in this league, it doesn’t matter who you are — except maybe a quarterback with a really large contract who has proven success — for the most part everyone’s fighting for a spot,” he said.