MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA: Zenner getting noticed on and off the field

Posted Jun 16, 2017

Running back Zach Zenner is getting noticed on and off the field for what he brings to the Detroit Lions.

Zach Zenner is getting noticed on and off the field for what he brings to the Detroit Lions.

On the field – where it’s most important in building a career – he has brought production and reliability that is a valuable combination at any position.

That was most apparent late last season when injuries had left the Lions without Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick in a late-season playoff run.

Zenner finished strong. For the season he rushed for 334 yards and four touchdowns, but he had 170 of his rushing yards – more than half his season total -- in the last three games.

It started in Game 15, when Zenner rushed for 67 yards and two TDs against Dallas.

In the last two games -- the regular-season finale against the Packers and the playoff loss at Seattle -- he was the Lions’ only tailback to have a carry or a reception.  In those two games Zenner had all 31 carries, for 103 yards and a touchdown. He added 10 catches for 95 yards.

The Lions are set up to use multiple tailbacks, with Abdullah the lead runner and Riddick a receiving specialist. Even though the Lions ended last season on a losing streak, Zenner’s work isn’t forgotten as he begins his third season in Detroit.

“I see consistent progress and improvement with him,” head coach Jim Caldwell said Tuesday as the Lions began a three-day minicamp that closes out the supervised portion of the offseason workouts.

“I don’t think anybody has any question, if you watched him progress last year, that Zach can run the ball. But he’s also a guy that’s very talented in terms of being able to help us on special teams. He can run the ball. He can pass protect. He can catch the ball out of the backfield.”

Zenner has gained a comfort level in two seasons without taking anything for granted – or conflicting with what he calls his “productive paranoia.” It’s a feeling that allows him to focus more intently on the job at hand.

“As a third-year guy, one thing’s for sure, you’re comfortable with your surroundings,” he said after Tuesday’s practice.

“Whenever you spend this amount of time in one place, you know how things work. You know the schedule. And that brings the stress level between practice and between meetings down a lot, I think.

“As far as on the field, I’m really still just trying to improve every day as far as progression. I think I’ve improved in some areas, but there are others I really want to get better at. One of those is pass protection.

“It doesn’t really stop for a running back. You’ve got to keep getting better.”

Zenner is appreciated for his conscientious pass protection. It’s an unsung part of playing running back, but it’s vital that a quarterback can trust his running backs to keep the pass rush off his back.

“The quarterback’s got to trust me, that I’m going to pick up the blitzes,” Zenner said. “There’s a lot of trust in football. To have that trust from them means a lot. There’s also a lot of responsibility there.”

Zenner has developed something of a following in his brief career. Part of it stems from how he made the roster in 2015 as an undrafted rookie. Fans appreciate his gritty playing style.

There was an example of Zenner’s popularity at a recent event hosted by Lions safety Don Carey at Martin Luther King Jr. High School as part of Carey’s foundation. About two dozen Lions players took part in the day-long event.

Zenner got the loudest ovation in the player introductions in the school auditorium.

“I really wasn’t expecting it,” Zenner said. “You never know what you’re going to get out of those events. You don’t go to them for that reason. To have that happen, it was pretty cool.

“It’s not why I do things, but it was cool to be appreciated in that way.”