ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Zach Zenner brushed off comments made by Seattle’s Michael Bennett, who said the Detroit Lion was the best white running back in the NFL, insisting he wasn’t bothered by the eyebrow-raising comments.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Zenner said. “It sounded like he said some pretty nice stuff, so I’m appreciative of that.”
A lot of people are saying nice stuff about Zenner these days, keeping his race out of the conversation.
The undrafted, second-year pro from South Dakota State has emerged as a No. 1 running back for the Lions , entering their NFC wild-card game Saturday night on the road against the Seahawks .
Zenner has set career highs the past two games with 110 yards of offense in a loss to Green Bay and 92 yards from scrimmage in a setback to Dallas. He had career highs with 20 carries for 69 yards rushing against the Packers after having 12 attempts for 67 yards against the Cowboys.
“There’s not many white running backs in the NFL, but he has to be the best right now,” said Bennett, a standout defensive end for Seattle. “He’s doing such a great job of cutbacks and hitting the hole. He’s a really good back.”
Detroit running back Joique Bell, who also earned a spot in the league as an undrafted player, said he has talked to Zenner about Bennett’s comments.
“He doesn’t feed into that stuff,” Bell said Thursday. “He just wants to play ball.”
And with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick out of the lineup with season-ending injuries, Zenner is getting a chance to play a lot of ball.
Zenner was on the field for 64 of 66 snaps in a 31-24 loss to the Packers and played extensively in a 42-21 loss at Dallas.
In both games, he was very effective in the first halves – helping the Lions lead each game at halftime – before barely getting the ball after halftime.
Zenner had 10 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns along with two catches for 25 yards in the first half against the Cowboys before having just two carries for 3 yards and no receptions in the second half against them. He ran the ball 16 times for 63 yards and a score and had three receptions for 35 yards over the first two quarters against the Packers, then had just four carries for 6 yards and one catch for 6 yards over the last two quarters against them.
Lions coaches have not provided a clear explanation for why Zenner hasn’t gotten the ball in the second halves of the last two games after performing so well in each game before halftime.
Detroit receiver Golden Tate is glad to see Zenner’s hard work pay off.
“He comes in early, leaves late,” Tate said. “He keeps his head down and does whatever the coach needs him to do. When he’s been on the field, he’s been balling lately. Hats off to the scouting department and the guys who brought him in as well. The next-man-up mentality has definitely worked in his favor and he’s earned respect every single time he steps on the field. He’s helping us. And, I can’t wait to watch him light it up on Saturday.”
Just don’t expect Zenner to lash out at Bennett during the game, or to praise himself much if he helps Detroit pull off an upset.
That’s just not his style.
Zenner was overlooked out of high school at Eagan High School in Minnesota, where he had more than 1,300 yards of offense and scored 17 touchdowns as a senior, leading to him settling for an offer to play at South Dakota State . In college, he proved a lot of people wrong by becoming the first Division I running back to run for 2,000 yards in three straight seasons.
Those stats, though, could not overcome his relatively small size and lack of blazing speed.
Detroit didn’t draft him, but gave him a shot to make the team as an undrafted free agent and he did with an impressive preseason last year. His rookie season ended after six games because of cracked ribs and a partially collapsed lung. Zenner recovered well enough to earn a spot on the team again this season, but was inactive for Week 1 and 2 games back when both Abdullah and Riddick were healthy.
Instead of saying a lot of colleges and NFL teams missed out on having him on their team, he simply takes the high road.
“Personally, I don’t believe I’ve had many doubters,” Zenner said. “If I have, I haven’t heard them.”
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