Zach Line is no stranger to being a long shot.
The fullback got his name on the radar of Vikings fans last Friday when he took a swing pass at the line of scrimmage and, thanks to excellent lead blocking from wide receiver Stephen Burton and a couple of moves on defenders downfield, scored a 61-yard touchdown. But his is a story that runs a little deeper when it comes to beating the odds.
An all-state high school running back in Michigan, Line had several offers to play for Division I colleges, but he was put under the spell of Southern Methodist University head coach June Jones. One of the brightest offensive innovators in the history of college and pro football, Jones was taught the run-and-shoot offense by legendary Mouse Davis. After spending almost a decade at the University of Hawaii, in 2008, Jones was brought in to reclaim the pride of the SMU program, which had lived under a dark cloud for more than two decades.
SMU was a program fraught with shame. In the early 1980s, the price of football in Texas was extreme. The competition was fierce and the money boosters were willing to pay was absurd. Violations of NCAA rules were the norm and SMU was as involved as anyone. The only difference was that SMU got caught and became the only Division I football program to ever get the "death penalty." In 1987, the program was shut down for two years – a lifetime in the minds of college players.
In his first season at SMU, Jones made Line a priority player that he wanted for the Mustangs' wide open offense. He promised him that he would be part of the completion of the 20-year struggle for respectability in Dallas. He would be part of that first team to post a winning record, but Line said the players knew the reason why the program succeeded – both on and off the field. It was Jones.
"Coach Jones was the biggest part of that by far," Line said. "He was brought in to restore the pride and competitiveness of the program. After the school got hit with the death penalty, it was tough. There were a lot of difficult years to try to bring the program back. He went out of his way to bring in the great players from the teams before that – Eric Dickerson, Craig James, every O-lineman or D-lineman who played in those days. He brought them in to talk to us about the pride and the swagger SMU held in college football and that we were going to be the group that finally brought us back."
In his freshman season, Line and his Mustangs teammates not only broke through the wall, they went on to win their bowl game – against a then-anonymous quarterback who has found his own sense of fame and fortune in the NFL.
"We had been on a 20-year bowl drought until our team in 2009 finally broke through," Line said. "It came down to our last game. We needed six wins to be bowl eligible and hit six wins on the dot. We went to the Hawaii Bowl, which was awesome, and we beat Nevada and Colin Kaepernick 45-10. That was a moment that meant a lot to a lot of people and showed us that anything was possible."
While Line posted some eye-popping numbers at SMU – he and Dickerson tied for career rushing touchdowns (47) and Line's 4,185 rushing yards is second only to Dickerson, a Pro Football Hall of Famer. However, he's not in the wide open offense of SMU anymore. He's playing behind a Pro Bowl fullback (Jerome Felton) on a team that has historically only kept one fullback on the roster.
"He has to show that he is capable to take on linebackers, and being able to pick up guys in protection, but the blocking aspect is as critical for our fullback as anything," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "Now the catch and run he made on Friday night is important too. But we ask our fullbacks to be guys who can move people and he will have to show that in this preseason. He needs to show that he can take on a blocker in the hole and move him, whether it be a linebacker or a defensive end that he will either cut or block high. His blocking will be a factor as well."
As with his emergence at SMU, Line knows his chances for success with the Vikings will be a long shot. But he's faced that hurdle before and cleared it and, thanks to another coaching legacy – special teams coach Frank Ganz Jr. – he is a ferocious special teams player who, at the insistence of Ganz, played a lot of special teams. Ganz instilled that his acumen on punts and kickoffs could be his ticket to an NFL career – getting a foot in the door and then kicking it in if given an opportunity.
"In college I played a lot of special teams," Line said. "My special teams coach said, ‘There are no sacred cows on this team, everybody's playing special teams.' That's how we did it and we were really good on special teams. I've always held a high value on special teams and, when I got here, learned that Coach (Mike) Priefer felt the same way."
Whether Line can make enough of an impression on the coaching staff to make the final roster is uncertain. But don't underestimate his ability or willingness to do the little things needed to get the job done. He's faced long odds before and succeeded, so he isn't worried about failing.
"All I wanted when I went to SMU was a chance to show what I could do and help bring the program all the way back from the low points it had gone through," Line said. "The Vikings are a different story, but I want to bring that same determination here. I can block, catch passes, run, play special teams. I'm willing to give my all in whatever is asked of me and hopefully it will work out and I'll be a Viking for a long time."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Line takes pride in SMU's rebound
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