NFL Draft 2015

Sleeper Sunday: RB Zach Zenner

Zach Zenner was a three-time All-American academically and athletically for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Zenner has already been admitted to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota. When his football playing days are over, Zenner’s goal is to become a surgeon. For the time being, Zenner hopes for the opportunity to cut apart defenses in the NFL as he did at the FCS level where he became the first player in Division 1 history to rush for over 2,000 yards in three different seasons and finished just 12 yards shy of setting the FCS all-time rushing record.

Zenner is a small-school, big-dreams player from Eagan Minnesota where he grew up with his eyes on the Vikings. After meeting with the Vikings at the East West Shrine Game, Zenner acknowledged he would love to play in Minnesota.

“That would be really special,”  Zenner said. “It’s a team that I grew up watching and that was the team that I dreamed about being on. I was a fan of their’s, but at the same time now I’m in a situation that getting on any team would be special.”

Small-school prospects need to consistently dominate their level of competition to catch the eye of NFL evaluators, and that is exactly what Zenner was able to do. A remarkable NCAA career as a three year starter for SDSU, Zenner ranked up 6,548 yards on the ground and added an additional 909 receiving yards while collecting a total of 69 touchdowns.

The Walter Payton Award Finalist and First Team All-Missouri Conference standout boasts excellent balance on contact and just enough wiggle to get to the second level. Once Zinner finds an opening he can get up field in a hurry. He plays faster in pads than his timed speed on the track would suggest, and his long speed is good enough to take the “big one” to the house. Last season he scored four times on runs of over 60 yards and his college career included 16 carries of over 50 yards.

Zenner is a one cut back with quick feet and good vision. The 5’11 223 pound ball carrier is a highly instinctive runner who has an impressive knack for cutting and stepping through tackles. Zenner’s blend of power, size, quickness, balance and finesse make him very hard to bring down on first contact.

He played in a spread offense that relied on him to make plays in the passing game. Zenner catches the ball out of the backfield well and show soft hands to make the tough catch. Good toughness in pass protection when asked to block but was primarily used as a playmaker.

Zenner is a player who never stops fighting for that extra yard and rarely fumbles the football. In today’s NFL, backs need to be able to contribute in many ways and Zenner is the type of all purpose hard working back you want on your roster.

The cons attached to Zenner are his stiff hips, weak level of competition, and limited growth potential.

But few in college football history can match is overall production. Over his final 41 games, Zenner averaged 148.2 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry. The stage isn’t too big for him either. In his three games against FBS schools, Zenner averaged 162.7 yard a game and 8.0 yards per carry.

One of those shining moments was in 2013 when he ran the ball 21 times for 202 yards and two scores at Nebraska. You can see on tape, Zenner can get to the hole quickly while keeping those feet moving and under him using quick choppy movement. He’s not a silky smooth mover, but his production is tremendous for an inside runner.

At the NFL combine, Zenner ran a 4.60 40-dash and posted the third best vertical jump among running backs with a 41.0 leap. At his pro day, Zenner had a crazy quick 3-cone drill of 6.88.

Zenner is projected to be a late round or undrafted free agent. Some evaluators even have him listed as a fullback. There is simply no question in my mind, Zenner will out produce his current projections.

The Vikings appear to be intrigued by his ability to make plays and his his high-effort willingness to go hard on every play. It’s always fun to learn more about the players the Vikings are working out and getting to know, and I think the interest in this Minnesota native is real. If Zenner finds his way to Camp Mankato, his Jackrabbit like quickness and his 0-to-60 burst up-field will certainly be noticed.

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Carl Knowles

Carl Knowles (Contributor) is a former member of the Professional Bowler Association and an avid lifelong Vikings fan. When he is not bowling you can find him on websites and forum pages sharing his creative insight and enthusiasm for the Minnesota Vikings any chance he gets. Carl was a Phoenix Institute of Technology and Purdue University standout who currently enjoys the challenge of being a graphic director in the printing business. You can follow him on twitter @carlknowles_vt.

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  1. This is one of the best running back classes I’ve ever seen. The Vikings have good RB options in every round.

    Adam did a great job highlighting John Crocket as a late round RB sleeper pick here

    Zach Zenner is right there with him in that late round area. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see one of these two guys sign with the Vikings as an un-drafted free agent if they go un-drafted.

  2. I was wondering when this dude was going to show up in this series. Thank you so much for posting. Another fine writeup on a good prospect. Some positions of need are going to have to be filled late in the draft or after.

    I wonder if there exists scheme fit issues with RBs, like with QBs? Does coming from a spread offense hurt or help or not effect Zach in his fit for us?

    I like that Zach’s a smart guy.

    1. For some NFL teams, coming from a spread system might hurt his grade.
      But in Norv’s system (likes to spread the field and use a single back), I don’t think it will be an issue with the Vikings. Might be a plus!

      Zenner has the size, quickness, toughness and smarts to read and pick up blitz packages in pass protection… and also has the ability to run routes as a pass catcher.

      Great question! Thanks SamuraiViking.

      1. Zenner and Crockett are both well rounded in the passing game as catchers and blockers, which makes them especially appealing. I would believe that it helps them adapting to our offense better than run-only backs, maybe.

        We already have great rushing backs in AP and McKinnon, but I feel we could get better in the RB passing game, yardage wise. Obviously RB pass blocking is key too, especially in a vertical passing game I would think.

        Also, Zenner and Crockett don’t fumble, which I think is a higher priority for teams than is reflected in mocks and online evaluations. Highly thought of prospects Ameer Abdullah and local hero David Cobb have significant and frankly unappealing fumbling histories. I suppose some of that can be fixed through coaching, but I don’t know.

  3. I like him I would definitely look at him at least undrafted some other guys I like are Xavier Williams Joey Mbu in 6th or 7th both d tackles. Skoll Vikings drink from the skull cap of Rogers

  4. He isn’t that good. David Johson and Zach Crockett are much better backs. NDSU shut Zenner down all the time. Zenner couldn’t do anything against a good defense.

    1. He rushed for 133 yards in the playoffs this year against NDSU.
      Also, “He isn’t that good.”?
      He did only rush for over 2000 yards for 3 straight seasons. You’re right. He’s terrible. He rushed for over 100 yds + 2 scores vs Missouri. He rushed for over 200 yds and 2 scores against Nebraska. He had a 99 yd TD run against Kansas. Ended with over 180 yds.
      Against FCS competition, he has 61 carries for 488 yards and 5 scores. Only 8 yds per carry. OUCH!
      You’re right. Terrible player.

  5. Pretty sure it’s john Crockett skoll Vikings drink from the skull cap of Rogers