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South Dakota State football: Catching up with former Jackrabbit Zach Zenner

Feb. 14—SIOUX FALLS — It's been just over four years since Zach Zenner played his last NFL game, and almost a decade since he last wore the blue and yellow as one of the greatest players in South Dakota State history.

But the now 32-year-old former running back remains one of the most significant players in school history, one of the first major superstars of the Jackrabbits' Division I era, and in many ways a trailblazer who helped put SDSU on the map as both a perennial FCS playoff contender and a school that could produce NFL talent.

These days Zenner is in the early stages of a new career, or careers, as it were, cutting his teeth as a player agent and operating his own business as a health coach, having recently become a certified nutrition specialist.

Back living in the Twin Cities area after a pro career that saw him rush for 683 yards and eight touchdowns, primarily with the Detroit Lions, Zenner and his clients are preparing for the offseason and NFL Draft.

It's been an eventful year for the father of three, as Zenner watched his Jackrabbits win their second straight national championship, saw the Lions come within a field goal of the Super Bowl and finds himself getting his feet underneath him in his new business ventures. As an agent, he partners with Chris Gittings, who was Zenner's agent when he played, and former NFL offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles in One West Sports Agency.

Q: So when we last spoke you had just embarked on a career as an agent. How's that going?

ZZ: It's extremely competitive. I'm learning a lot. The worst part about it is I only get to fail once a year. That's in November and December when people are picking an agency. So you don't get to fail fast enough. It can be very disappointing at times and extremely rewarding at others. I recruited a player for two years, flew out to see him, and he ended up flipping a coin and it didn't land on our side. So two years of work evaporated in that moment. You just kind of lay on the floor after something like that.

But then you have the guys that are like, yeah, I'm in, and it's just fantastic. The best. Working with the players brings me a lot of joy. It's super rewarding to get feedback from our guys. I mean, when a guy tells you they're getting better feedback from you than their position coach — inject that into my veins. That's why I'm doing it.

Q: You ended up not getting taken in the 2015 NFL Draft, but had a pretty successful career, especially for someone undrafted. Do you think, in hindsight, you should've been drafted?

ZZ: I mean, I outlasted many of the running backs that got drafted ahead of me, so it's easy to say, oh yeah, I should've been drafted. That's logical. Now, from my perspective as an evaluator, would I expect someone like me to get drafted? I think it depends on the year. In this year's running back class I think I would've for sure. The year I was drafted you had guys like Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, David Johnson — I was much more of a borderline guy.

Q: What do you think of (SDSU running back and draft prospect) Isaiah Davis?

ZZ: He's fantastic. Love him. Wish he would've picked us (for representation). He's a good kid, too. Good head on his shoulders, works hard. He's a guy (Jacks coach Jimmy) Rogers talks about being super invested in his body and his process.

Q: He put up huge numbers in college and certainly passes every eyeball test. Is his draft positioning going to come down to his 40-time?

ZZ: I don't necessarily think so. If he runs a 4.4 that would improve his draft stock, sure. If he ran a 4.7, which he won't, that would be bad. Everything's on a spectrum. You can maybe move yourself a half a round with a good time, but that's not the kind of back he is. He's an all-around back with power, and I think that's how most teams see him, regardless of his 40 time.

Q: Did you follow the Jacks closely this year as they went for the repeat? Did you make it to Frisco?

ZZ: Oh my gosh, yeah, of course. I was actually in Frisco but I didn't go to the game — I was at the College Gridiron Showcase the day of the game because we had a client there (Augustana tackle Blake Larson). But I did go over and see a bunch of old teammates at the JFPA thing (Jackrabbit Former Player Association gathering) and that was a great time.

I followed the Jacks all year. I watched about half the games live and the other half on tape. It was fun following them. What a great, dominant year. That really is an FBS team, the talent on that defense, the way they dominated in the playoffs. I'm really happy for Coach Rogers, too. Anything short of a championship would've been a disappointment and that's a lot of pressure.

I'm excited for next year, too. The monkey's kind of off his back now so they can get back to developing and building what they have. It's gonna be fun to find out who's gonna step up. Who's gonna play at wide receiver? Who's gonna be the starting tight end? There's a lot of questions marks and to me that's exciting.

Q: When you came to SDSU or at any point during your career — at which point the program was starting to turn a corner towards where it is today — did you ever envision it reaching the heights it has? Not just a national championship but the crowds, the facilities, the NFL players, the national recognition....

ZZ: When you consider everything, probably not. They always talked about the stadium when I was playing, but I didn't really expect to see it. It was one of those, yeah, that'd be great, kind of things.

I loved (Coughlin-Alumni Stadium). It was old and crappy and the field sucked. People would get off the bus and be like, 'This patch of weeds is where we're playing?' And we'd by like yeah, and you're about to get your butt whupped. We made it our own, ya know?

So I guess to answer your question, I pictured SDSU always being a good team. A competitive team always hanging around the top of the Valley. But where it is now? No, I can't say that I did.

Q: Last thing, how 'bout those Lions?

ZZ: Yeah, that was fun to watch. It was fun for me to watch the city — other than that they booed Matthew (Stafford, the longtime former Lions quarterback now with the Rams), that pissed me off. But otherwise, Coach (Jim) Caldwell always told us, if you give this city a consistent winner they're gonna give you the keys. I think you saw that this year. It was a team you could believe in and cheer on, and Ford Field was like a jet engine. It was just really fun to watch, and I'm happy for the fans and the owners. It was a bummer they couldn't put it away against the 49ers (in the NFC championship game) but hopefully they have a good draft and can make another run at it.