Zach Zenner diary: Trying to score points at the Combine

Zach Zenner is trying to catch on in the NFL after a stellar career at South Dakota State.

Julio Cortez/AP

Zach Zenner played running back at South Dakota State, where he became the first FCS back to rush for 2,000 yards in three different seasons and finished just 12 yards shy of setting the FCS’ all-time rushing record. Projected to be a late-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Zenner will take you through the process of training for the NFL Combine, his pro day, the anticipation for draft day and more. You can check out his first entry here, and follow Zenner on Twitter @Zenner31.

For most of the last two months, I’ve spent the majority of my time training to get ready for the NFL Combine, and finally, this past weekend, I got to see if my hard work had paid off.

As a small-school guy, it’s important to have a good showing at the Combine, because you never know whose eye you might catch and when, and I’m pleased with the way I performed, overall. But one thing I learned during my four days in Indianapolis is that no amount of Combine prep can truly leave a person completely ready for everything the weekend brings.

I knew what to expect in the sense that I was prepared for how busy I was going to be, but even though I knew what was coming, having to do all of the medical examinations and interviews and just being on a tight schedule the whole time I was there was still a lot more challenging than I anticipated.

I flew into Indianapolis on Wednesday and left on Saturday night and hardly had a moment to catch my breath in between (though I did get a chance to see my sister, Abby, who swims at South Dakota State and happened to be in Indianapolis for the Summit League meet).

After I landed, I waited an hour (one of the few breaks I had), got on a shuttle to the hotel, and then the fun started. Once I got to the hotel, I basically got my stuff, checked into my room and went to the hospital to start taking blood tests and heart tests and meeting with doctors for medical history reviews that allowed them to get a general sense of how healthy I am.

For me, personally, the medical process was interesting. My goal after football is to become a surgeon — I’ve already been admitted to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and accepted a spot in their class — and the medical testing at the combine illustrated the fact that every team wants a different opinion and no two doctors necessarily share the same one.

I swear I had every joint in my body evaluated six different times and everyone at the Combine had to do that, and that was simply because groups of teams had collaborated with each other and certain teams shared the same results. I don’t know the rhyme or reason for it exactly, but I guess going through six checkups was better than having to be poked and prodded 32 times. Still, I think that it could have been consolidated a little more.

My goal after football is to become a surgeon — I’ve already been admitted to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota and accepted a spot in their class — and the medical testing at the combine illustrated the fact that every team wants a different opinion and no two doctors necessarily share the same one.

In any case, after my medical testing was done, I went back to the hotel, where I met with 10 or 15 different coaches from around the league for one-on-one interviews that lasted until almost midnight. They were mostly informal interviews, and in many cases, I was meeting with a position coach from a team I had already spoken to at the East-West Shrine Game. For the most part, the coaches were just trying to get a read on who I am and how well I understand the game from an X’s and O’s standpoint.

It’s hard to know exactly how I did in those interviews. When it comes to talking about football, they kept any compliments or any negative responses pretty close to the vest. But when I did mention that I had been accepted into medical school, there was some genuine surprise, generally, from a lot of the people and coaches that I met with. I would imagine they don’t get too many draft prospects who tell them that.

But as far as them being impressed with my football knowledge, I couldn’t really say how they felt. From my perspective, I didn’t make any enormous blunders, but I don’t know what you need to say in those situations to really impress someone. You’re talking to people who know the game so well, so what do you say to an expert that’s going to make them say, ‘Wow, this guy knows what he’s talking about’? I think no matter what you say there’s going to be a level of, ‘Well, he’s got some room to grow.’

Fast-forward to Friday, and I finally got to do some physical work with the bench press. I was able to do 26 reps at 225 pounds, but ended up having one of my reps deducted because my hips came off the bench. For me, 25 was right about what I expected, though 26 would have been awesome.

In training, my hips were strong in terms of being on the bench toward the beginning, but it had been a focus of mine to keep them real still toward the end. I wasn’t planning on losing a rep, of course, but I knew that  they had taken reps away from other people earlier that day and even the day before. They’re trying to keep it fair for everyone, and when I watched them take reps from other people I couldn’t always spot exactly when their hips came up, so while I was hoping I wouldn’t lose any, I wasn’t entirely surprised that I did, and I was happy it was only one.

Of course, before the bench press, I had to do more non-football work first, the most important of which was taking the Wonderlic test. The test is 50 questions in 12 minutes, and the one I took was a little bit different than the ones I’d taken in the past. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I’ll put it this way: The test would be easy if you had an hour to take it.

I just wish the test had a Henderson-Hasselbach pH question or something, and then I would have been able to separate myself.

Zach Zenner

I think if we all had an hour, everyone would do really well, but that’s the whole point of the test: you need to go fast. So overall, including the time, it was a little bit challenging — but again, if everyone had all the time they needed, I think everyone would do fine. I just wish the test had a Henderson-Hasselbach pH question or something, and then I would have been able to separate myself.

There were a few other events scheduled for Friday — a profiling test, some psychological evaluations, a meeting with the NFLPA, speeches from Tony Richardson and Ahman Green — but Saturday was the day that everyone was waiting for, and I was eager to get out on the field and perform.

For me, it was helpful in some ways that I’d been able to familiarize myself with a few of my competitors while training at Michael Johnson Performance in Dallas. I worked out day in and day out with so many other great running backs — including Malcolm Brown from Texas, Michael Dyer from Louisville and Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska — and getting to know them was even better for me than being able to compare how training was going.

When we’d play those big programs while I was at South Dakota State, the coaches would always say things like, ‘They tie their shoes the same way, they’re putting their pads on the same way, it’s not like they’re super-human or anything,’ and it’s one thing to say that, but then to really get to know those guys and who they are, you find that those coaches were absolutely right. We’re just all playing a game that we love and competing and trying to be the best that we can.

Obviously, most people look forward to the 40-yard dash, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t wish I was able to run faster. But then again, who wouldn’t want to run their 40 faster? You’re not going to talk to many guys who would say, ‘Yeah, I’m completely satisfied with my 40 time.’ That’s just the way it is. We’re all competitive athletes and we all have confidence in our abilities, so I think almost everyone there would say they wanted to do better, and I’m one of those guys. But at the same time, when you look at my times (a low of 4.60 seconds), it wasn’t a bad day, when it comes to comparing me to the other backs.

Another event where I thought I did well was my vertical, which measured at 41 inches. I think the people were a little bit surprised by it. Even the guys that were just kind of hanging out and running down the numbers seemed surprised that I was able to jump that high. The training at Michael Johnson definitely helped in all my tests, but I have been able to jump and had a pretty good vertical ever since I first tested in it, in high school.

In addition, I logged a 10-foot, 1-inch broad jump, tied for the fifth-best among running backs, and also had a top-10 time in the three-cone drill (7.08 seconds). I thought I did well in the position drills, and then I closed with the 20- and 60-yard shuttles, which were kind of interesting.

See, by the time you do the shuttles, you’ve already done position drills and the spotlight is gone, so to speak. All of the coaches have left the building because those are just times, and they’re going to film it, so they can watch it later if they want. So most of the coaches leave, and it kind of quiets down in the stadium a lot and there’s not as much anxiety and people  are a lot more relaxed. So it’s a very unique setting compared to the other tests, where you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to perform.

When you get to those shuttles, it’s kind of like, ‘Boy, are people even going to hear about these things?’ To top that off, you only get one attempt, which is very challenging. It’s easy to slip or not touch the line — I had a bad slip in my 60-yard shuttle — and with one attempt, I think it’s hard for people to perform at their absolute best.

That said, I’m not worried about any single result making me or breaking me when it comes to my future in the NFL. Obviously they’re all important tests or they wouldn’t be in there, and I’m pleased with how I performed, but it’s just a small part of the process. It’s an opportunity for teams to compare you to other athletes, but at the end of the day, I think your film and your interviews play as big a role in the draft positioning as the Combine, itself.

Of course, I couldn’t even relax after the Combine was over for me, because I had to take part in another race just to make my flight back to Minneapolis! I basically had to go straight from the airport without changing, and I still nearly missed a shuttle from the hotel to the airport. If I had changed my shirt and taken a few minutes to clean up, I would have missed my ride. Someone actually had to run out in the street for me to stop the shuttle while I was checking out!

Once I got to the airport, a few people stopped me to say something but a lot more people just stared. It is one thing that I was wearing Combine gear, but it’s another that it was highlighter orange. I think if anyone wears highlighter orange, they’re going to get a couple looks, but then I’ve got “RB 36” on my shirt, and it was literally just on TV. It’s not that people would know me, but they would obviously recognize that gear, so there were quite a few stares.

Finally, I got back to Minneapolis, where I enjoyed the rest of my weekend back home before driving back to South Dakota State in Brookings. I’ll be there for the next month, continuing to train until my Pro Day on March 25 — unless I get any calls for individual workouts with teams before then, in which case I’ll be on the first flight out to try to impress yet again.

All told, I don’t know if I feel any stronger about getting drafted after the Combine, but I do feel a little bit more confident that I’ll have a chance somewhere and that someone will want me on a team. It’s too early to say whether that means being drafted or signing as an undrafted free agent, but I feel like this helped assure me that I will have an opportunity.

People like to talk about the draft and everyone says, ‘Oh, I think you’re going to be picked in this round or that round,’ and after going to the Combine, I feel like I confirmed that I can compete with any of those guys once I was able to get on the same playing field for the first time. I’m not saying any one team laid its heart out and said, ‘We really want you,’ but I think that — just from being there and talking with some of these teams for the second time —  it became an even closer reality that I will have shot in the NFL.

Chapter 1: Getting a Combine invite and getting engaged