By Brian Hilderbrand for www.armedforcesbowl.com
Dallas, Texas, December 20, 2010 – A great deal of SMU’s offensive success this season can be tied to the emergence of sophomore running back Zach Line. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Line’s development from primarily a short-yardage back as a freshman to the anchor of an improved running game has allowed the Mustangs to open up their run-and-shoot offense.
After carrying the ball only 49 times for 189 yards as a freshman, Line reported to camp this fall 15 pounds lighter and responded to his increased responsibility on offense by leading Conference USA in rushing this season (16th nationally) with 1,391 yards on 227 carries.
Not bad for someone who was the 341st-rated running back in the nation as a high school senior and was overlooked by virtually every Division I football coach in the country.
It was only by happenstance that Line, who was recruited as a linebacker, landed at SMU – a program that Line admits he was unfamiliar with until he received a call from June Jones shortly after Jones took over the program in 2008.
“I had never heard of SMU,” Line said flatly as the Mustangs prepared for their first practice for the December 30 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, where they will meet Army at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
Line played high school football at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich., with the son of Detroit Lions executive Bill Keenist. Line wasn’t getting much attention from college recruiters and Keenist, who noticed Line’s potential, sent a DVD of Line’s highlights to Jones, who then was the head coach at Hawaii. Keenist knew Jones from his stint as the Lions’ quarterbacks and receivers coach in 1989 and 1990.
“Bill Keenist connected me by sending a film to Coach Jones and told him, ‘This is a good player, check him out.’” Line said.
When Jones got the job at SMU, he remembered Line but, because of NCAA regulations, was not allowed to bring Line’s DVD to Dallas.
“When Coach Jones moved to SMU, he called me and said, ‘Hey, can you send me another film?’ That’s when I got my visit,” Line recalled. Line visited the Dallas campus and was offered a scholarship.
Line reported to his first practice at SMU as a linebacker. He said that assignment lasted one day because his experience as a pass protector was needed on offense.
“I played running back in high school, too, so I had some knowledge of how to play running back – but not in the spread,” he said. “I played in the I formation in high school. This (offense) is a lot different for me and I realized that I needed to lose a couple of pounds from last year to be able to compete in this offense.”
Mustangs running backs coach Wes Suan would often talk about the “ultimate back” – one who could pass protect as well as carry the load as the primary running back.
“I always try to picture myself as doing that job – taking the pass protection on myself and taking running on myself, too, but I just couldn’t see myself doing that without losing some weight, doing all the drills and getting quicker,” said Line, who dropped 15 pounds prior to this season. The hard work has paid off for Line, who said he enjoys his increased role in the Mustangs’ offense.
Brian Hilderbrand (email@example.com) will be covering the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl for www.armedforcesbowl.com for the second consecutive year. Hilderbrand is a media consultant and freelance writer in Las Vegas after spending more than 30 years as a sports writer covering high school, collegiate and professional sports in Southern California and Nevada. He began his journalism career in 1974 – while still in high school – covering local sports for his hometown Placentia (Calif.) Courier. A Cal State Fullerton alumnus, in 1979 he joined the sports staff of the Anaheim Bulletin, where his beats included the California Angels and Los Angeles Rams. After a brief stint at the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, he moved to Las Vegas in 1986. He covered minor-league baseball, golf, motorsports and UNLV football during a 22-year career with the Las Vegas Sun.