Despite missing the last three games of the year due to foot surgery, Zach Line still finished this past season among the nation's Top 10 running backs, not to mention far and away the top back in Conference USA.
He rushed for 1,224 yards, averaging 122 per game, and scored 17 touchdowns, making him a nominee for the Doak Walker Award, which honors the country's best running back.
Line played through pain practically all year, separating his shoulder in the third game of the season against Northwestern State – the one when he broke Walker's single-game touchdown record of five scores. He wore a Kevlar vest to lessen the impact of hits from there on out and felt good enough to keep playing.
But after the Navy game, the tenth game of the season, Line was finished for the year after hurting his toe. It was terrible timing with then-No. 11 Houston and a visit from ESPN College GameDay looming the next weekend.
Line explained that if it had been up to him, he would have played against UH, Rice and against Pitt in the bowl game, but there was a small window for surgery and he had to give in, otherwise he would have had to get his toes "fused together," he joked.
"After I got injured, I was just kind of like, blah," said Line, who explained he couldn't work out for a couple months after surgery.
Since then, Line has been rehabbing and working toward being healthy for next season. He is obviously taking things very easy, which is hard for someone as competitive-natured as him. But this injury is a six-month healing process and he understands that.
"Right now I feel pretty good," he said. "I haven't done any real cutting or full sprints. I've done a tiny bit of running, but I can't do anything crazy. I have done squats and things to keep my legs strong, just not actual running."
Line said he's been working out on the stationary bike and elliptical and getting his heart rate up by taking short or no breaks while lifting weights.
With his senior season on the horizon, how can Line avoid getting injured next year?
"All I can do is train to get healthy," he said. "And I'm more mature now. I go to bed earlier, train the way I should for my body, eat right…it all plays a role."
While injured, Line still played a valuable role on the team. Once offensive line coach Adrian Klemm left for UCLA, running backs coach Wes Suan took over lineman duties and Line stepped up and coached freshmen backs Rishaad Wimbley and Jared Williams leading up to the Compass Bowl.
"There's a difference between a veteran and a freshman mentality," Line said. "Obviously you want a veteran mentality in there, but for [Wimbley and Williams] to come in and play like they did and play like veterans, they did a great job."
Line said he was on the sideline when Williams got smashed up against Pitt and broke his femur.
"That made me want to throw up," he said.
The Houston game was really the first time Wimbley and Williams saw some action. They combined for a dreadful net of 24 rushing yards. But in the following weeks against Rice and Pitt, they had 255 yards rushing between them.
The coaching saga
The last thing any player needs heading into their senior year is for their coach to abandon ship.
That's what almost happened to Line when June Jones was a mob of angry boosters away from occupying the head coaching vacancy at Arizona State in December.
But Line said that's a non-issue.
"That passed really fast," he said. "Once he spoke to us, I think it was clear. We got over it. He's the guy who's been with us for everything. We can't hate the guy we love and who taught us everything we know."
Asked if there were any hard feelings in the aftermath, Line said, "Absolutely not."
And that was evident in the bowl game as the Mustangs looked the best they had since playing TCU. The month-long break helped in terms of nursing injuries, but the players came out ready to play for themselves, the guy next to them and their coaches.
"There was a lot of good energy around the team," Line said. "Everyone was real positive about the game."
Season in review
After losing their first game to Texas A&M at the raucous Kyle Field, SMU went 5-0 down the first stretch of the schedule, beating teams like TCU and UCF along the way. The Mustangs needed just one more win to crack the Top 25 for the first time since the Death Penalty.
But they suffered a 24-point loss to future C-USA champion Southern Miss the following week and went on to lose four of their final seven games.
So what happened? Was there a hangover in effect after the emotional win at TCU for the illustrious Iron Skillet?
"When you start losing games, you start losing track of what's right and what's wrong," Line said. "I felt like we weren't as one. I think with good leadership we can be a better team next year. With good leadership, you can do anything."
Line also attributes SMU's mid-season downfall to turnovers.
"We just had a lot of them and we didn't take the ball away very much and that's huge," he said.
As Line approaches his final season as a Mustang, there are lots of question marks surrounding the team. There will be a quarterback battle for starters, and the team loses its entire starting offensive line as well.
But Line is confident in both departments.
"Whoever plays, I have full faith," he said of the quarterback spot.
But most of all, next year is Line's last on the Hilltop and he wants to make the most of it, despite the uncertainties.
"It will be my last year and I want to go out with a bang," he said. "I've always been a leader, but last year I wasn't a captain, so I stepped back and let them do their job. This year as a senior, I'll see myself as a captain even if I'm not one and I'll step up a lot more and talk to my team and pull guys aside and lead them to win."
Asked who he feels the team's main leaders are heading into next year, he listed defensive back Ryan Smith (because of his experience and maturity), defensive tackle Aaron Davis (because of his work ethic) and offensive lineman Jordan Free and defensive end Kevin Grenier (because of their time spent in the weight room).
"We'll lead the offseason and work hard," Line said. "And it has to be a team effort."
Line is also excited to have his younger brother Prescott as a member of the rising freshmen class.
"I'm excited to teach him the ways and how the big boys play," Zach said.
Line is as selfless of a player as they come. Asked about his eight 100-yard-plus rushing games this year and he gives all the credit to the offensive line for opening up holes. Asked about scoring five touchdowns in one game and he'll tell you Jones called great plays. It's never about him.
But 2012-13 being his last as a Mustang, what are the things Line would like to achieve?
"I don't really know," he said. "I would like to beat some SMU records. It's always good to be well-known around the school. I want to come back and visit and be talked about. I'd like to beat some of Eric Dickerson's records. He's a phenomenal guy. Beating some of those records is something I want to strive for. I want to break season and career records."
Line was on pace to beat Dickerson's single-season touchdown record this year before getting hurt (he only needed three more to take the lead with 20), and he was just 393 yards shy of quashing the legend's season yardage record.
But what better way to go out with a bang then by killing those records during a senior season?
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