Look up Zach Zenner of South Dakota State in most major draft databases and you'll likely find his name listed among the fullbacks.
The designation certainly seems like an odd one for a player entering the 2015 NFL draft as arguably the most productive—yet still mostly unknown—running back in this year's loaded position class.
While Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for a ridiculous 2,587 rushing yards last season, even his three-year numbers can't match Zenner's impressive finish. From 2012 to 2014, Zenner rolled off three straight 2,000-yard seasons, totaling 6,078 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns. Gordon rushed for 4,817 over his final three years in Madison.
Everyone knows Gordon, a Heisman Trophy finalist and potential first-round draft choice. Zenner, who is projected by most as a late-round pick or priority free agent, remains mostly an unknown.
And let's drop the charade that Zenner—a player with four touchdown runs of over 60 yards just last season—is anything but a running back prospect at the next level. His 41 starts as a sophomore on resulted in 32 games with 100 or more rushing yards.
|Zach Zenner: Production Personified at SDSU|
|Played in 52 career games|
Level of competition is always a quick rebuttal to hyperproductive players from the FCS. By default, South Dakota State plays a much less difficult schedule than an FBS school like Wisconsin. But when given a chance to face the big boys, Zenner always rose to the occasion.
He opened up a breakout 2012 campaign with 183 rushing yards and a 99-yard first-quarter touchdown against Kansas. One year later, Zenner took the field at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and busted off 202 rushing yards and two scores. He completed his trifecta of big-school domination last season, when he rushed for 103 yards—including a 75-yard touchdown—against Missouri.
Over his final 41 collegiate games, Zenner averaged 148.2 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry. In his three chances to face top-level competition, he averaged 162.7 and 8.0. The opposition knock just doesn't hold water for the former Minnesota prep star.
|Zach Zenner vs. FBS Competition|
|Long: 99 yards (at Kansas)|
Few in college football history can match his overall production.
Zenner entered his final collegiate game needing 145 rushing yards to break the FCS record of 6,559 career rushing yards. He rushed for 133 against North Dakota State, failing just 11 yards short of tying the mark and 12 of setting a new one. He finished ranked second all-time in FCS, but his 6,548 yards is still more than the current FBS mark—which is held by Wisconsin's Ron Dayne (6,397).
He also became the first FCS running back to rush for 2,000 yards in three straight seasons. His 61 rushing touchdowns were the most in Missouri Valley Conference history.
Throw in 95 catches for nearly 1,000 yards and eight receiving scores and Zenner has few college equals in terms of volume numbers over the last four years.
All the production earned Zenner an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, where he once again proved he belonged.
His work during the week in St. Petersburg opened the eyes of Charles Davis from NFL.com.
"Zenner goes hard on every snap and in every drill," Davis wrote. "He kept making plays this week, whether it was catching the ball out of the backfield or running the ball on an inside drill. He's not a big name, coming from South Dakota State, but I think a lot of teams will be intrigued by him."
His momentum continued in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. Zenner became the first South Dakota State player since 1999 to receive an invite, and he did not waste the opportunity.
After weighing in at 223 pounds, Zenner ran the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds and posted the third-best vertical leap among running backs at 41.0 inches.
His overall numbers were comparable or better to several big-name running backs in the 2015 draft class:
|Zach Zenner vs. Other Notable RBs at Combine|
|J. Ajayi||Boise St.||4.57||7.10||19||39"|
Zenner's 40-yard dash time wasn't particularly impressive, but his tape helps calm any worries about his long speed. His collegiate career included 16 carries over 50 yards, and his first touchdown against Nebraska showed him split a pair of defensive backs with speed to find the end zone.
Video of the play can be viewed below:
Lance Zierlein praised Zenner's speed in his draft profile at NFL.com.
"Big and fast; smart and tough," Zierlein wrote. "Will win most footraces once he gets to top gear."
Greg Gabriel, a former NFL scout and current analyst for National Football Post, believes Zenner possesses an NFL-caliber skill set. And he also believes he belongs at running back.
"Overall, Zenner is very talented," Gabriel wrote back in February. "While he will need some development time coming from the FCS level of competition, he has the traits to be an eventual starter in the league. He is a very solid mid round pick."
Davis compared Zenner to Antone Smith of the Atlanta Falcons, noting he liked the South Dakota State product more every time he watched him on tape.
Zenner is a difficult projection. He does not possess explosive measurables, and hailing from an FCS school likely does him no favors. There is also a probable racial component to his projection, with a certain stigma surrounding white running backs contributing to his placement in some circles as a fullback only.
But there is no questioning his burst and potential ability to play all four downs at the next level.
Some might see Zenner as a potential fullback. Others might not even know his name. Either way, his crazy production has opened eyes ahead of this month's NFL draft.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.