Zach Zenner was experiencing reasonable success as a running back for Eagan High School. Then, starting quarterback Jameson Parsons was injured early in the 2009 season, and coach Rick Sutton went to Zenner as his quarterback.
"We had an option offense," Zenner said. "It became even more of an option offense with me as a quarterback. Passing was not my strong point."
Zenner and Eagan went on a run that attracted attention, including from the coaches at the University of Minnesota.
The Gophers' 10th game was a non- conference meeting with South Dakota State. Tim Brewster's staff sent Zenner a couple of tickets to attend as a possible walk-on.
"They were good seats," Zenner said. "The Gophers barely won [16-13]. I was in the locker room briefly after the game. That was it. I never heard from Minnesota again."
He did hear from South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits were the only school at the second-tier NCAA Division I level [FCS] to offer Zenner a scholarship.
"That was kind of weird -- to wind up with South Dakota State, the team I watched play the Gophers on my 'recruiting' visit," Zenner said.
Zenner was a redshirt as a freshman in 2010. Apparently, he made a proper impression on coach John Stiegelmeyer and his staff, being named the scout team player of the year for the offense.
Tyrel Kool was the starter and Zenner the backup at running back in 2011. Zach's main impact was as a kick returner.
A switch was made for this season: Kool moved to receiver and Zenner was installed as the No. 1 tailback.
The results came quickly. The Jackrabbits opened at Kansas. Zenner's first carry resulted in a 1-yard loss and soon South Dakota State punted. Kansas punted back and downed the ball at the 1.
"We wanted to get the ball away from the goal line," Zenner said. "It was power straight ahead. You could see their safety coming hard downhill. We blocked the play perfectly, and it was wide open."
Zenner went 99 yards and scored at 8:33 of the first quarter of the season. South Dakota State wound up losing 31-17 to the Jayhawks but has followed with four victories over FCS opponents.
The long runs have kept coming for Zenner: a 35-yard TD and 42-yard run vs. Southeastern Louisiana; 61- and 23-yard TDs vs. Cal Davis; a 57-yard TD and 87-yard run vs. Indiana State; and an 88-yard TD vs. Missouri State.
Let's back up a moment: an 87-yarder that didn't get to the end zone?
"I got caught at the 3, more from the side than behind," Zenner said. "I ran out of gas."
Zenner is 6 feet and 215 pounds. He's fast but not a burner. Yet, here he is five games into the schedule with five runs of over 50 yards, and leading Division I (FCS and FBS) with 1,077 yards on 137 carries. His averages are 7.9 yards per carry and 215 yards per game.
"Definitely, our guys up front are doing the job," Zenner said. "As an offense, you have to expect to break every one of them. If you have that attitude and everyone does their job, you can have some success."
Eagan's Sutton was asked to analyze Zenner's so-far astounding success as a third-year sophomore.
"He's strong as heck," Sutton said. "He doesn't do a lot to make you miss. He's more likely to run through a tackle. And he's faster than people think he is."
Sutton paused and added: "He's also a very smart kid. He's probably going to be more successful after football than he is on the field."
Zenner is on a pre-med track with his classes. "Right now, it's organic chemistry," he said. "I'm not 100 percent where I'm headed. Maybe surgery."
The Jackrabbits were off last weekend in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. They are home against Western Illinois on Saturday, with power programs [at] Northern Iowa, Youngstown State and [at] North Dakota State still ahead.
Sutton dismissed the idea the "leading rusher in the nation" tag would put pressure on Zenner. "Not at all," Sutton said. "He's about as levelheaded of a young man as you'll find."
So much so that the kid from the big city has found Brookings, S.D., fully satisfactory. "There's a Wal-Mart and a handful of restaurants," Zenner said. "That's all I need."
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. firstname.lastname@example.org