South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner is everybody’s All-American

BROOKINGS, S.D. — Crowded around two medium-sized tables in South Dakota State football coach John Stiegelmeier’s modest kitchen, the 16 seniors on his Jackrabbits team were discussing their most embarrassing sports memories over a pork loin feast on a rare Sunday reprieve from the team’s training camp grind earlier this month.

The annual senior dinner is a matter of tradition for Stiegelmeier, an institution in these parts, himself, as the good-natured, scooter-riding, South Dakota native known as “Coach Stig” prepares for his 18th season as head coach at the FCS power about an hour north of Sioux Falls. And as ritual has dictated, the seniors followed up an austere roundtable about team rules with some light-hearted banter about the topic of Stiegelmeier’s choosing.

As the show-and-tell train made its way around the room, the players shared stories in order of birth date, doing so between mouthfuls of pork, corn on the cob, beans and a brownie sundae, occasionally pausing to pour another glass of milk from one of the four gallons the team consumed.

The tales of dismay the men told ranged from the benign — more than one player copped to forgetting his cleats at an away game in high school — to moments straight from the blooper reel — an unwieldy lineman who briefly doubled as his high school’s punter once fielded his own punt from the spot where he kicked it — to the downright mortifying story of a guilty former basketball star who accidentally spoiled a pre-planned, feel-good moment for a special needs player from the opposing team.

I told people last year that there were probably only two backs in the same class as Zach, at any level, and that’s (Carlos) Hyde from Ohio State and (Terrance West) from Towson.

SDSU running backs coach Nic McKissic-Luke

Eventually, when Coach Stig called for September birthdays, the focus turned to Zach Zenner, the Jackrabbits’ All-American running back and a man whose biggest flaw, according to those who know him, seems to be how few flaws he has. And while Zenner’s fellow teammates were admittedly eager to hear the most embarrassing moment of their two-time captain’s career, they also couldn’t help but make a few jokes at his expense.

Earlier, as the guys discussed the stories they planned to share, one cracked that he seemed to recall Zenner being stopped for a loss on a run once in a game last season. Another made a remark about the ugly yellow non-contact jersey Zenner has to wear at practice. A third joked that he heard a rumor that Zenner struck out not once, but twice in a game during his baseball-playing days at Eagan High School in the Twin Cities area. (Amazingly, no one mentioned the throwback Samsung flip phone that Zenner still uses as his main method of communication.)

“Honestly, I think they just marvel at what he’s done and what he can do,” Stiegelmeier had told me the night before, after the team’s second practice of the day, from his office overlooking the field at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium. “They’re not jealous. It’s just an appreciation for what they know is supposed to happen — that hard work produces results. Many of them give him crap, calling him ‘Perfect Zenner’ and stuff, and he just smiles and shakes his head.”

True to form, Zenner laughed and played along with the badinage, seemingly knowing that his teammates’ ribbing came from a place of respect. When it came time for Zenner to tell his “most embarrassing” story — recounting what was essentially one bad baseball game when he struck out three times at the plate and gave up eight runs on the mound — it was easy to see that there was more than a hint of truth in his teammates’ playful raillery.

“It happens all the time, but it’s all in good fun, and I guess it’s better than being made fun of for doing bad stuff,” Zenner had said several hours earlier, at the team breakfast inside Larson Commons. “Everyone gets made fun of. It’s just a matter of what it’s going to be about, so it could be worse.”

Zach Zenner has rushed for more than 4,000 yards combined over the last two seasons.

To say that Perfect Zach Zenner is the best running back you’ve never heard of might sound like overstating the credentials of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound FCS stud who was a finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Football award as a senior in 2009. However, all it takes is one glance at his numbers and one conversation with his position coach to get a sense that Zenner is as legitimate as they come.

“I told people last year that there were probably only two backs in the same class as Zach, at any level, and that’s (Carlos) Hyde from Ohio State and (Terrance West) from Towson,” said SDSU running backs coach Nic McKissic-Luke, who played at Alabama and Alabama A&M before a stint with the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. “That’s the type of level he’s on.”

After carrying the ball 107 times for 470 yards in a backup role as a redshirt freshman, Zenner supplanted incumbent starter Tyrel Kool as a sophomore and led all FCS rushers with 2,044 yards on 6.8 yards per carry. During his junior campaign last year, Zenner ran for another 2,015 yards and 23 touchdowns. With 4,529 career rushing yards coming into this year’s season opener at Missouri on Saturday, he’s poised to become the leading rusher in both South Dakota State and Missouri Valley Conference history.

Zenner is already the Missouri Valley’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards, with 5,861, and he holds the SDSU record for rushing yards in a game (295, twice, against Eastern Illinois in 2012 and against North Dakota last season). And he’s not just beating up on the other little guys, either. Zenner set a school record with a 99-yard touchdown run on his second carry of the season against Kansas in 2012 — part of a 183-yard day against the Jayhawks — and ran for 202 yards in three quarters in a loss at Nebraska in September.

“He rises to the occasion, obviously, and plays pretty well in those games,” said Jackrabbits offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness, who recruited Zenner during his previous stop as the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State. “Some guys get nervous, and against great competition — I don’t want to say they fold, but they’re not always at their best. But he’s not that way. He tends to play really hard and do a great job, and though he hasn’t been perfect, he’s been really good.”

To look through Zenner’s game logs is to transplant yourself into a world of video game numbers, with seemingly every Saturday being defined by at least one monster run. In addition to the 99-yard score against Kansas, Zenner also had carries of 61, 87, 88, 60 and 68 yards against UC Davis, Indiana State, Missouri State, Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois, respectively, in 2012. Last season, Zenner had a 40-yard touchdown against Nebraska and padded his stats with a 75-yard carry against Southeastern Louisiana, an 80-yard run against Western Illinois and an 87-yard touchdown sprint in a playoff win over Northern Arizona.

The breakaway dash is neither the entirety nor the epitome of Zenner’s game. Not even close. At his core, Zenner is a grind-it-out back who prides himself more on his vision and ability to break tackles than anything else. Zenner describes himself as “fast enough” in the open field, and according to his coaches, his acceleration has to be seen to be believed.

“Zach is a 4.5 (-second 40-yard dash) guy, but he has next-man speed — or that’s what I call it,” McKissic-Luke said. “He’s always going to be faster than the next man, faster than the man next to him at all times. He’s 4.5 in shorts, and he’s 4.5 in pads, and he’s always going to outrun the guy chasing him.

“He’s got great quickness, and he’s a kid that plays well in open space and can hit a home run, but watch him, and you’re going to see a back that can carry it 15 times and go for 250, and you’re going to see a guy that can carry it 35 times and go for almost 300. You’re going to see a back that goes for 4 yards, 5 yards, 8 yards, then 20, then 70; it’s not 1 yard, 2 yards, minus-2 and 90. You’re going to see a consistent guy and a guy that plays his butt off every play.”

Added Stiegelmeier: “He’s going to get 5 yards when there’s only 4 to be gotten. … People joke that we have two plays — Zenner left and Zenner right — but I mean, if he’s averaging 5 or 6 yards per carry in a given game, why wouldn’t you do that? The goal is to win the football game.”

He’s going to get five yards when there’s only four to be gotten. … People joke that we have two plays — Zenner left and Zenner right — but I mean, if he’s averaging five or six yards per carry in a given game, why wouldn’t you do that? The goal is to win the football game.

SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier

It would appear that the only way to stop Zenner is for Zenner to not have the ball in the first place, which was the case last season in an eight-carry, 4-yard dud against three-time defending FCS champ North Dakota State. Though the game was close until the midway point of the fourth quarter, NDSU was stacking the box from the opening drive and South Dakota State abandoned the run early, giving Zenner three carries in the second half.

With the benefit of hindsight, the offensive coordinator Eidsness says he wishes he had put more faith in Zenner and the offensive line to move the ball forward in that game, but Zenner himself isn’t questioning the decision.

“I don’t think there’s ever a game that you don’t second-guess yourself, and that’s one I’ve relived more than once,” Eidsness said. “But if you asked Zach, I bet he’d say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t working, so we tried something else.’ He was frustrated, but he doesn’t question anything. It’s not that he’s not determined. He wants the ball. He just has a very strong belief that we, as coaches, are going to do what’s best to win the game.”

Said Zenner of his light load in the NDSU loss: “When I know what’s happening and I know there aren’t many lanes, then I’m not frustrated with the play opportunities. I’m just more frustrated that we weren’t better prepared as an offensive unit to deal with what they were doing to us.

“The same thing happened against Eastern Washington where they had a bye week and got to prepare for us for two weeks, and we got out there and they just really had us dialed up, gameplan-wise,” Zenner added, referencing his 71-yard effort in SDSU’s playoff loss last year. “Even if we run a pass play every time, I’m not frustrated with not getting touches, so to speak. I’m just more frustrated with what happens when we can’t do what we set out to do.”

That humility, as much as anything, is what defines Zenner, who is admittedly low-key on the field and is equally reserved in the locker room. It’s unusual for a player of his prominence to try to stay out of the spotlight, but Zenner says he likes things better under the radar.

“I’d say I’m good but — we talked about it in a (team meeting) recently — something that sticks with me is the phrase that, ‘you never arrive,’” Zenner said when asked to rate his own skill level. “You’ve never made it in life, in anything, and there’s always room to improve. You can always be a better son, you can always be a better boyfriend, you can always be a better student, you can always be a better running back.

You’ve never made it in life, in anything, and there’s always room to improve.

Zach Zenner

“… I could be under the radar, or I could be in it, and it won’t change who I am. It won’t change what I do, and even if I am ‘on the radar,’ I spend most of my time with my head in the sand, studying and doing football stuff, so I wouldn’t hardly know it, anyway.”

Oh, right, the studying.

The “student” aspect of many prominent student-athletes’ careers generally amounts a footnote in a player’s bio in the team media guide, but for Zenner, his studies are as important an aspect of his life as the football that consumes so much of his time. A pre-med student pursuing a degree in biology, Zenner is a brainiac, to be sure, and behind his glasses, his eyes light up more at the mention of his future career as a doctor than a future in football.

“It’s true,” he said. “Ask anyone in the locker room and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

Medicine been a passion of Zenner’s since he was a kid, when his father, then a psychiatric nurse, would come home from work talking about a new study he’d read or some other development in the medical field. Even after his dad moved on to work in health insurance, Zenner maintained an interest in the ins and outs of medicine that was only sparked further by his interest in hunting.

“We went deer hunting when I was 12 in northern Minnesota, and (my dad) bought me this book,” Zenner said, as if reciting an answer at a med school admissions interview. “It was a cardboard book with a picture of the animal, and then you peel off one page and the skin is gone and you can see all the nerves, then you peel off that page and you can see all the cardiovasculature, and so I could see what organs were where so I knew where to shoot a deer, in the event that I saw one.

“I didn’t shoot one until I was 14,” he added, “and then when we were field dressing it — you want the meat, right, but everything inside you remove right away, or else it’s going to smell terrible — that was awesome. It was the first time I saw it, and seeing how everything fit together and being able to feel it and see the heart that I had shot in my hand, still warm, and the intestines and the stomach and everything, it was sweet.”

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When he got to South Dakota State, Zenner immediately dove into his studies, and still hasn’t come up for air. After taking a few classes in his major, and then working as an intern teaching fellow students lab material, Zenner found himself working with four other students in a dissection lab, preparing cadavers for students four nights a week from 9 to midnight.

“I invited all the coaches to come check it out,” Zenner noted with a wry smile, “but a lot of people declined.”

This semester, Zenner says he has himself set up for an “easy” slate of classes, with advanced physiology the only real challenge — but if nothing else, that will give him more time to research and apply to med schools. He’s already been accepted to one, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but wants to keep his options open once he leaves SDSU.

“I’m interested in surgery,” Zenner said. “I like getting my hands dirty, so to speak. I’m sure to you that sounds terrible, but to me that’s it. So I’d guess surgery would be where I’m headed, but it’s a very competitive field, and maybe I don’t have what it takes…”

I stop him there and don’t say a word, but give him a look that says, “you know you don’t believe that.” Zenner then smiled and picked up where he left off, adding, “I plan on having what it takes, but I’m not there yet. “Another example of Zenner living by the philosophy that he’s never truly arrived.

Of course, as much as Zenner wants to be a doctor, there’s one other dream that he wants to fulfill first — playing in the NFL.

A Minnesota Vikings fan from birth, Zenner grew up idolizing Vikes running back Robert Smith, but never expected he’d have the chance to follow in the footsteps of his favorite player, who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards in his final season, in 2000.

In fact, most colleges didn’t recruit Zenner as a running back.

Most, including Zenner’s hometown University of Minnesota, wanted him to play on the defensive side of the ball, as a safety or linebacker, so South Dakota State’s offer to let him stay at the position he grew up playing — he took the field as a wildcat-style quarterback his senior season in high school but was a running back until then — was enticing, though he didn’t initially see it as an opportunity to one day reach the NFL.

“I didn’t know it would be so real, but obviously it was a goal in the back of my mind from when I was a kid,” Zenner said of his vision when he arrived on campus. “I mean, that’s what I wanted to do, and I ended up being blessed enough to be in this position. It still might not work out, but it’s kind of more real now, more tangible, there are talks that it could happen.

“So it was kind of a goal in the back of my mind, but I was more focused on doing well here, doing well in terms of doing the best that I could do, and wherever that led was where it was going to lead. This wasn’t a stepping stone. I wanted to be here and do my best here and then whatever happened after that is a bonus.”

Over the years, South Dakota State has had several players develop into prominent pros, including Hall of Famer Jim Langer and current Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, but since the Jackrabbits moved up to the FCS level in 2004, only linebacker Danny Batten has been drafted (by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round in 2010), a fraternity that could soon expand to two, if things work out right for Zenner.

“There was a guy here today, this morning, from the Ravens, and we were talking about Zach and he said, ‘Don’t worry, people will know about Zach Zenner,’” Stiegelmeier said. “He didn’t imply that they already did, but he said that they would, and he was very positive about Zach’s chances at that level.”

Convincing NFL scouts that a top player at a lower level has what it takes to play on the biggest stage, however, is easier said than done.

“Most scouts when they look at him will say, ‘How does he compare to bigger schools?’ He’s done that, he’s played well against them,” said McKissic-Luke, who likened Zenner to Frank Gore when asked about a present-day NFL comparison. “Then they’ll say, ‘Does he dominate this level?’ He’s done that, too.

Coach Stiegelmeier on Zenner: "He’s not a fluff guy, he’s not going to make excuses, and he’s going to move on to med school. But if he stays healthy he should have a shot.”

“He has the speed, he has the quickness, he has the explosiveness, he has the elusiveness, and I think most people don’t realize how good he really is until they see him in person — until you’re chasing him, until you’re squared up with him and he’s coming downhill at you, until you’ve got an angle on him and he outruns your angle. The kid just has the talent, he has the skill set and he can do it all anywhere.”

Added Eidsness: “Jerry Rice didn’t play at the highest level of football, and there’s guys like that who weren’t Joe Montana who went to Notre Dame and were supposed to be this or that. I think there’s always the guy that beats the odds and is able to shine, and they’re winners.

“They’re guys that, no matter what they’re going to do, they’re going to win, and I think Zach has that approach in everything that he does. So he never surprises me, because he doesn’t cut corners and his preparation gives him an opportunity to be successful, and the talent always comes through.”

Though no one is tabbing Zenner as the next Rice or Walter Payton — the man for whom the FCS’ most outstanding player award is named — Zenner’s versatility should also come in handy when trying to make a roster at the next level. Though it was important for him to play running back in college, it wasn’t a deal breaker if he had better opportunities elsewhere, and he says he’s aware that if he’s to make it in the NFL, it may not be because of his efforts at tailback.

2014 PRESEASON WIN TOTALS

“I didn’t have any preconceived sense of, ‘I’m a running back and you can’t change me,’” Zenner said of his mindset coming out of high school. “That’s not what I was about and if people at the next level thought that I was only a safety, then that’s what I was going to play. It’s the same going forward. I’m going to try to play in the NFL, and if people think I can only play a certain position, then that’s what I’m going to play. Whatever people want me to do, I’ll do it.

“I don’t know where people will see me, but I’m willing to do whatever they want me to,” Zenner said. “If people think I’m going to gain 10 pounds and play fullback, it’ll be hard for me, but I’m going to try if that’s where they think I can play because they don’t think I’m fast enough or quick enough or whatever to play running back. I’ll certainly do special teams, and if I need to do a position change, I’ll do that too.”

And if all else fails — well, at least he’s got a career as a surgeon to fall back on.

“If I get to stick around long enough to see what it’s like, that’ll be enough for me, I guess, to comfortably move on to the medical profession,” Zenner said. “It definitely wouldn’t be the end of the world (if football didn’t pan out). There’s no attitude like that in my mind, where football is everything. Football has never been everything.”

That being said, don’t expect Zenner to half-ass his chance at making an NFL roster just because he’s got a bright future ahead of him without it. It’s  not in his DNA.

“I think the NFL thing is just like everything else for him, that’s he’s going to be all-in for that goal and not have any regrets,” Stiegelmeier said. “And if he’s all-in and he gets the opportunity and then gets cut, then so be it. He’s not a fluff guy, he’s not going to make excuses, and he’s going to move on to med school. But if he stays healthy he should have a shot.”

Added Zenner, matter-of-factly: “I want to give my best in everything that I’m doing, and in order to really try to do the NFL thing, I need to give it everything I have, and I plan on doing that.”

One might think that life would be a challenge for Zenner considering all that comes with being who he is.

In addition to his efforts on the field and in the classroom, he’s also active in his church, is on the school’s Student Athlete Advisory Council and has even spoken on behalf of the university, traveling to the state capitol in Pierre to lobby on behalf of the athletic department in its efforts to get funding for a new football stadium.

Somehow, Zenner also finds time for yoga and hangs out with his roommates, including receiver Jason Schneider, offensive guard Andrew Mueller and punter Ethan Sawyer, and is also a mentor to his sister, Abby, a swimmer at SDSU, his brother, Sam, who will follow in Zach’s footsteps as a running back at the university starting next fall, and his eighth-grade sister, Emily.

There’s no catching Zach Zenner.

But if you ask Zenner, he’ll tell you that he likes things that way, giving his full effort and attention to everything that he can — and even still, he’s more than willing to describe himself as “boring.”

“There are no movies made about the college student who just hangs out with friends, studies on weeknights and goes to class and wakes up on time,” Zenner said. “No one wants to hear about that, but I think if you want to be successful, then that’s what you have to do.

“Obviously you need to do some exciting things on the football field in order to be successful, but no one writes stories about someone who does what they’re supposed to.”

Or at least no one used to.

But with a dominant performance against defending SEC East champ Missouri in Week 1, Zenner will no doubt put himself in the center of the national consciousness, whether he likes it or not. Even with his future, perhaps, at stake, however, Zenner swears he won’t be getting up for one big FBS game more than any other matchup on the schedule, and says he doesn’t  hold a grudge or feel the need to prove the FBS schools that doubted him wrong.

“It’s exciting and it’s easy to look at and say, ‘(Playing well against Mizzou) would be so sweet,’ but it would be nice to win every game,” he said. “It is exciting, but I understand that even if we lose against Missouri and we win every conference game, we’re going to make the playoffs. If we beat Missouri and lose every conference game, then we won’t make the playoffs. So what’s more important?”

There will be challenges for Zenner to overcome against the Tigers and the rest of the schedule, of course, the most pressing of which may be a brand new O-line that’s still finding its groove after the Jackrabbits lost six of their top seven offensive linemen from last year to graduation or injury. But Zenner won’t be using that as an excuse if he comes up short in the biggest game of the year and says he’s going into the game expecting not only to run well, but to win.

“We’ve lost quite a few players, but guys are going to step up,” Zenner said. “Through hard work and what we’re doing right now and the brotherhood that we’re making — look, these guys have been around. A couple of these guys that are stepping up are juniors. It’s their time to really show what they’ve got and I’m excited to see what they’re going to do.”

“I don’t care who you are at running back, the fat guys up front have to do their jobs,” Stiegelmeier said, “or else it’s going to be a long day.”

If we beat Missouri and lose every conference game, then we won’t make the playoffs. So what’s more important?

Zach Zenner

But if the “fat guys” up front do right by Zenner, he’s virtually a lock to do right by them. It’s just what Zach Zenner does.

“You either get better or you get worse, so you better work as hard as you can to get a little better, because to be worse than you were yesterday would be a shame,” Eidsness said of his star back. “He definitely takes that approach and embraces it, and I don’t know if it’s fear of failure or whatever, but he’s not going to be outworked by anybody. He can always sleep at night well knowing, ‘Hey, we’re going to Nebraska, I’ve prepared myself, I’m ready and let’s see how good this can be,’ or ‘We’re going down to Missouri, let’s see what we can do.’”

“He’s 100 percent the total package,” McKissic-Luke added. “When you think about what you want in a student-athlete, that’s it. He’s the picture of it.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.