NFL Draft: Why SMU's Zach Line Will Make a Difference in the NFL
The best kept secret in the 2013 NFL Draft doesn't own explosive combine results, doesn't possess enormous height and doesn't come out of a big-time football school.
So while the draft "experts" continue to drool over the "can't-miss" prospects who will hear their names called by Roger Goodell in April, the player to keep an eye on is SMU running back Zach Line.
Though he hasn't received the same buzz and hoopla surrounding the big-name players with the big-time combine numbers from the big-name schools, Line will carve out a nice role in the NFL.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask Line some questions before writing this article.
Line is listed at 6'1'' and 230 pounds and is classified as a "tweener" by NFL standards, meaning he is considered to be a tad too slow to be a running back and a tad too small for a fullback.
However, Line is much more complex than a one-dimensional player, and his versatility should make him a valuable asset on an NFL offense.
Line finished his NCAA career with 4,185 rushing yards and 47 touchdowns. To put his SMU career in perspective, he finished with more all-purpose yards than Eric Dickerson, tied Dickerson for the most rushing touchdowns in school history and is second in career rushing yards to Dickerson.
For those keeping track, this is the same Dickerson who ran for an NFL record 2,145 yards in 1984 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
One of the issues facing Line is that scouts aren't sold on the fact that he will be a running back heading into the NFL.
"I view myself as a running back," said Line, who rushed for 1,278 yards in a pass-first offense last season. "With that said I have the ability and willingness to learn new positions. I think my versatility is a major selling point. Coaches have told me many different things: possible third-down back, fullback, or even moving around to H-back. Obviously special teams will be a key aspect of my playtime."
This shows that Line is extremely coachable and willing to serve any role the team needs to put him in.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, there is no reason why Line cannot make it as an NFL running back. He is a solid runner who has averaged 6.1, 5.9 and 4.6 yards per carry the past three seasons at SMU.
Though he hesitates to compare himself to any specific player, Line is very similar to Peyton Hillis and Mike Alstott, as he tries to incorporate a lot of aspects into his skill set. He is a strong north-south runner who powers through tackles for extra yardage.
When asked to describe his strengths, Line said, "When I do get the ball I have great vision and ability to run with strength in the box. I create and break arm tackles and fall forward to finish runs."
Line looks for the vacancies in the defense and has the quick burst to get to the holes. He is tough to bring down and fights for every possible yard on every single play. His power and acceleration will allow him to squeeze out the tough yards in short-yardage situations next season.
However, Line ran a 4.77 40-yard dash at the combine, which has some teams questioning his potential at the running back position.
Luckily for Line, he recorded 33 receptions for 229 yards for SMU last season, demonstrating that he can be a multi-purpose player.
What may be Line's best asset is the intangible aspect of his game being overlooked by NFL scouts: his pass-blocking ability.
In college, Line was a running back in June Jones' Run n' Shoot offense, which consistently saw up to four receivers on the field at once. This system emphasized the pass, and Line learned to master pass-blocking.
Since NFL offenses are passing the ball at a very high rate, Line's pass-blocking will add value to him and get him onto the field quicker. He is low enough to get leverage on incoming defenders and strong enough to fend off rushers to give the quarterback time to deliver the ball.
Since Line does have a proven history as a rusher, receiver and blocker, he may be suited as a hybrid player in the pros.
Line has the athleticism and wide range of skills to be similar to James Casey or Brian Leonard. Both players split time at fullback, with Casey specializing as a tight end and Leonard as a running back.
One thing coaches won't have to worry about with Line is his work ethic.
The reason that Line, the 2012 Conference USA Offense Player of the Year, was able to thrive in a pass-heavy offense was because of his willingness to prepare before game day.
Line prides himself with what he does prior to game days. "My practice habits and work ethic are unmatched. I train like I play."
And one thing is certain: Line can play football and play it well.
He has his pro day at SMU on March 27th and will have one last opportunity to show scouts and coaches why he can be a valuable piece to an offense.
Line had the opportunity to train with Montee Ball before the combine, an invaluable experience that will only enhance Line's production on the football field.
"Montee was a very solid runner and a great work partner," Line said. "I think we both pushed each other to have perfect practice prior to the combine."
Ball was an extremely prolific collegiate player as well, being a two-time consensus first-team All-American and setting the NCAA Division I FBS record with 77 career rushing touchdowns.
Having the opportunity to compete with Ball for the same common goal is a jump-start to what Line will see in an NFL training camp this summer.
Chances are that Line will be drafted in the fourth round or later, and Line won't know if he will be projected as a short-yardage back, halfback or a fullback until he talks to his future coaches. Line will know that he will have to compete for a roster spot, and he will certainly be prepared for the opportunity that awaits him in a few short weeks.
The situation Line will find himself in the NFL isn't too different from the situation he found himself in at SMU.
Line only received one Division I scholarship offer and went to SMU with little expectations. Four years later, Line carved out perhaps the best Mustangs career since Dickerson and put SMU back on the map following the infamous death penalty.
In the NFL, Line will most likely come in as a player with a lot to prove just to make the 53-man roster. However, this is nothing Line hasn't seen before or conquered.
"This entire process has taught me to have a lot of patience," Line said when asked what the pre-draft experience is like. "It would be very nice to have some reassurance of where you might be going, but you don't. All you can do is keep up with your training so you are able to shine when your time comes."
And that time will come very soon for Line.
For whatever reason, Line has slipped through the cracks and will be a mid-to-late-round pick. But don't let his draft status define his potential; Line is a do-it-all player.
Line fights between the tackles for tough yards, breaks tackles with ease and lunges forward for every last yard. Line can catch the ball out of the backfield and pass blocks as well as anybody in this draft class.
Regardless of his role, Line is confident he will be prepared.
"I would bring the versatility to be a hybrid player. I am able to run the ball, I am able to pass protect, I am able to catch the football. I bring consistency to the offense. Coaches will never have to worry about me missing an assignment. I pay close attention to detail because I am a student of the game."
For those who think talk is cheap, just simply put on any game tape of Line.
He fights through and breaks tackles like Alstott. He is patient like Arian Foster and pass blocks as well as Joseph Addai did for the Indianapolis Colts in their heyday.
So regardless of what happens this April, Line is almost certain to impress his new employers. He prides himself on his practice habits, and if he practices like he plays, his play will speak for itself this summer.
In this day and age of many one-dimensional players, Line is very old-school because he can do a lot of things in an offense. His versatility and wide-ranging skill set are crucial to his potential success, but his work ethic and attitude make NFL success a real possibility.
"Coaches will find it hard not to play me when they see my attention to detail and practice habits. I earn the right to play the game at its highest level on the practice field."
Line is a great football player and a true professional. He will be a draft-day steal, a late-round gem and enhance any offense in any way needed for years to come.
Whether Line is expected to add depth to the running back position, transition into a fullback or be a special teams contributor this fall, he will do his job with passion and do it well.
And in a generation of "me-first" players who excel in only one aspect of an offense, it is refreshing to see a humble, versatile and talented player in Line, who will make the most out of whatever situation an NFL team puts him in this April.
(Sound off in the comments below as to which NFL team you want to see Line with next year!)
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