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O'HARA: Despite late-season success, Zenner starting anew

First impressions count, but last impressions aren't forgotten, either.

Zach Zenner's performance at the end of last season strengthened his position in the running back rotation as the Detroit Lions prepare for the start of this season.

The running game was put almost solely in Zenner's hands, and he ran and caught with the opportunity under the pressure of a playoff run.

It didn't lead to winning. The Lions made the playoffs despite losing their last three regular-season games, and the skid continued in a 26-6 loss at Seattle in the Wild Card round.

But the finish did not wipe out individual performances – good and bad – and Zenner's was on the good side. Where he fits in the competition for depth positions will be determined in the rest of training camp and the preseason, but Zenner has made a good impression.

"I think towards the end of the year everybody realized what, essentially, he's been doing for a long time," head coach Jim Caldwell said in training camp. "We knew Zach could run the ball, but obviously I think he showed how effective he can be when you give him the ball enough times – a considerable amount of times."

By the end of last season, the running back rotation was down to one man – Zenner.

He had all the carries and all the receptions among the Lions' running backs in the last two games – losses to the Packers in the regular-season finale at Ford Field and at Seattle in the playoffs. He took 117 of the 121 snaps in the two games. Rookie Dwayne Washington was the only other running back to play an offensive snap and he had just one.

Typical of Zenner's approach, his focus is on the start of this season, not the end of last season.

"Every season is new," Zenner said. "As much as you like there to be carryover after a fairly strong finish, the reality is you have to start over, and you have to build that foundation for the next year.

"It's good for sure to get opportunities and put stuff out on film, but you want to keep improving."

The Lions struggled with the running game all season, and injuries made the situation more acute as the season went on.

Ameer Abdullah, the top run threat with versatility to break big plays running or receiving, went out for the season with a foot injury in Game 2. Theo Riddick, one of the NFL's premier receivers out of the backfield, missed seven games, including the last four of the regular season plus the playoff loss.

Zenner became the iron man in the running game through attrition. It started in Game 15 against the Cowboys on Monday Night TV, when he had 12 carries for 67 yards and two TDs and two catches for 25 yards.

View photos from the Mock Game at Ford Field on Aug. 5, 2017.

Against the Packers he had 20 carries for 69 yards and a TD and four catches for 41 yards. In the Wild Card loss at Seattle he had 11 carries for 34 yards and a team-high six catches for 54 yards.

For the season Zenner rushed for 394 yards, four TDs and a 3.8 yard average per carry. He added 18 catches for 196 yards and an average of 10.9 yards per catch.

Zenner appreciated how his season ended on a personal level, but with the perspective that winning is better.

"People go their whole careers and not be in a playoff game," he said. "To get an opportunity to play a lot in the playoffs in my second year was really special. It was cool.

"The last few games we had a lot of great environments. We had the Monday Night game at Dallas. We had a rocked-out Ford Field (for the Packers). We just need to win. Then it would be really fun."

What can be better than running out of the tunnel to start a playoff game?

Good question – and a better answer from Zenner:

"Running back with a victory."

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