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With Season Debut Beckoning, Can Zenner Make Lions Look Smart Again?

By: Will Burchfield

Zach Zenner hasn't drawn much media attention this season, but a crowd of cameras rushed his way on Thursday afternoon when he began talking to a few reporters in front of his locker.

The running back has a good chance to make his season debut on Sunday in the wake of Dwayne Washington's quad injury.

Zenner, not always the most talkative guy on camera, spoke generally about the Lions' rushing game for a couple minutes. When the scrum dissipated and the air grew more casual, he began to open up.

Zenner was scratched for the first two games of the season. Surely that must have been frustrating after he finished 2016 on such a roll.

"Luckily -- or however you want to look at it, maybe not luckily -- it's out of my control. So I'm not going to concern myself with that," Zenner said. "I'm just going to prepare as if I were playing and be ready whenever it's my chance. You can only make the most of the opportunities you're given. After that you don't have a say, so it's very easy from that aspect, in my opinion."

The Lions like Zenner, who they signed in 2015 as an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota State. They like his smarts, his toughness and his reliability. Zenner made them look sage toward the end of last season when he took over for the injured Theo Riddick and averaged about 4.4 yards per carry over the final five games.

He seemed like a good bet to open the 2017 season as the team's No. 3 running back behind Riddick and Ameer Abdullah.

Then Week 1 rolled around and Zenner showed up on the inactive list, supplanted on the depth chart by Washington. Same thing in Week 2.

If he was surprised, Zenner never sought an explanation from the coaching staff.

"No," he said. "Whatever the decisions are, my job is just to roll with that."

The Lions went with Washington ostensibly because he had won the job as kick returner. Zenner doesn't offer the same versatility.

"There's a lot of things that go into your roster. Guys that you need up in situations with special teams, there's a lot of different factors," said Jim Caldwell. "It shouldn't give you any indication of what we think about Zach. Zach can run the football. I've told you that I don't know how many times. He's capable, and if he gets an opportunity to do it this week I think you'll see him get it done."

Washington missed practice for the second straight day on Thursday, so there's a good chance Zenner will get his shot Sunday versus the Falcons. He'll be ready because he's always ready, a mentality that might seem hard to maintain from the outside.

"I don't view it as tough," Zenner said. "I would view it as something that takes a little discipline, just to keep rolling no matter what happens. And I think having that sort of discipline is helpful to sticking around, because if you were to fall off from your routine and maybe do things differently because you expected to be (inactive), when you did get your chance you wouldn't be ready."

Opportunities weren't hard for Zenner to come by in college. He got at least 300 carries and rushed for over 2,000 yards in each of his final three seasons at South Dakota State. But that was in the Missouri Valley Conference. This is the NFL.

The breadth of that chasm isn't lost on Zenner, and it's one he tries to bridge by always staying sharp.

"I've done that since being here because the people that I had surrounding me during the pre-NFL process made me aware that opportunities are very limited in this league, and it can come at any time. So you need to be ready," Zenner said.

If it comes Sunday, how confident is offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter in Zenner's ability to do the job?

"Confident," said Cooter, twice for good measure. "Confident."

Said Caldwell, "We believe in him."

Zenner will try to prove them right again.

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