Line Unbroken: Southern Methodist University White Running Back Zach Line Succeeds Despite "The Standard"


Zach Line got one scholarship offer: to play linebacker from SMU

Never forget what happened in 2009, when Stanford white running back Toby Gerhart won the Doak Walker Award and came in second in the Heisman Trophy vote. Coming out of high school, Stanford was the only school to offer Gerhart the opportunity to be a feature tailback. The University of Southern California wanted him to play fullback and other schools thought he’d be better suited as a linebacker.

Never forget what pioneering recruiting guru Tom Lemming said about how college recruiters no longer recruit white players to play certain positions like tailback, corner back, and wide receiver, positions that fans and coaches alike have been conditioned to believe where only Black athletes can excel.

Take the words of former Southern Methodist running back Eric Dickerson on the issue:

“They can’t compete with us,” NFL Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson once said. “The black athlete, especially at that position, is faster, more elusive. That’s a position made for agility.

“It’s kind of like our chosen position.”

Chosen position or just a position that few white athletes get the chance to play in college, negating opportunities for white running backs in the National Football League (NFL)? Just look at the criticism running back Jacob Hester took at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 2007 from predominately Black defenses, who questioned why he wasn’t playing at the Air Force Academy. Just look at the criticism Peyton Hillis took in 2010 from predominately Black defenses in the NF, even as he ran over, around and through them on his way to being the first white running back to run for more than 1,000 yards in a season in 20 seasons. 
Draft analysts questioned whether Toby Gerhart could succeed as a running back in the NFL before the 2010 draft (he would picked by Minnesota), largely due to The Standard being applied to his being a white running back.
One has to wonder how many white players coming out of high school, who excelled at running back, wide receiver, corner back or safety were switched to play another position – or just weren’t recruited – because of The Standard being applied and the belief that white kids aren’t fast enough (blessed with enough speed) to compete for the big time conference teams.
Enter Southern Methodist University (SMU) white running back Zach Line. In 2010, he nearly ran for 1500 yards, challenging Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record at the school. In a game against Northwestern State on September 18, 2011, he broke the SMU record for touchdowns in a game. He’s in the top ten in rushing yards for the season (and the nation’s scoring leader) thus far in the Football Bowl Championship (FBS) classification, after scoring three more touchdowns and tallying 136 yards rushing in a 42-0 blitz of Memphis today.
And he’s done all of this despite being recruited to play linebacker at SMU, after putting up huge numbers in high school as a running back. No school wanted him to play running back for them in college (after all, he’s one of those hundred’s of white running backs Tom Lemming said that doesn’t get the chance to play college ball because of The Standard).
Here’s what the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote about Zach Line:

He was recruited to SMU to play linebacker, a position at which he excelled during a standout prep career in Oxford, Mich.

As he prepares for Saturday’s Conference USA game against the University of Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Zach Line’s objective is to punish linebackers who obstruct his well-worn path to the end zone.

Line is SMU’s unlikely star, a 6-1, 230-pound running back who held no scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs out of Oxford High, but who enters Saturday’s game tied for the national lead in scoring (16 points per game) and atop C-USA in rushing (109 yards per game).

”He’s a big bruiser back, but he has enough agility and speed to punish you,” said Tiger co-defensive coordinator Galen Scott. ”And he’s averaging six yards a carry. He’s good at what he does and they’re good up front.”

Even though he has eight touchdowns in three games — including a school-record five in last week’s 40-7 win over Northwestern State — Line isn’t in the midst of a breakout season. That was last fall when Line earned first-team All C-USA honors by rushing for 1,494 yards, the second-highest total in SMU history and trailing former Mustang and NFL great Eric Dickerson.

It’s been an ideal marriage between Line and SMU, one arranged by Bill Keenist, the Detroit Lions’ senior vice president of communications. Keenist’s son played with Line in high school and Keenist sent a DVD of Line’s highlights to SMU coach June Jones, a former quarterbacks coach for the Lions.

Jones had every intention of playing Line at linebacker, where he had 154 tackles, eight forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries as a high school senior.

”They recruited me as a linebacker, but on the first day of spring ball (in 2009) they moved me to running back,” Line said. ”They told me they needed somebody at running back.

”I had put my running highlights on my (high school DVD) so I think they knew I could play a little bit. I was a pretty good blocker and I think my wrestling background helped me become a blocker.”

Line was used mostly as a short-yardage back as a freshman and ended his first season with 189 yards. Last year, he started 12 of 14 games and was largely responsible for SMU’s first West Division title and its first back-to-back bowl appearances in 25 years. Line’s rushing total was the most ever by a Jones-coached running back.

”I think Coach Jones gained some confidence in me last year,” Line said. ”When the passing game wasn’t working, we’d run the ball. We ended up running more than normal (516 pass attempts, 304 rush attempts).
”Teams still have to defend the pass against us. That puts them in a rough spot. We still run four-wide sets every time, we have four receivers who are fast and can get down the field in a hurry. So they have to cover that and then we can hit the draw play or the trap play.”

Mostly a power back in high school, Line said he had to learn ”how to make people miss” in college.
Line said he had trimmed from 242 pounds to 225 upon making the switch to running back, but has settled into an effective playing weight of 230.

”Zach is a very good inside runner,” Jones said. ”He’s tough with quick steps. And he can block. Zach is a good football player.”

 Running a 4.6 40-yard-dash (the end-all, be-all metric used to gauge speed by college and NFL scouts), Line’s only offer for a college scholarship from SMU is indicative of the challenges that white athletes face from college evaluating services like Rivals.com and Scout.com, which dictate which players colleges will try and secure a commitment from. Check out this article from ESPNDallas.com, where you learn Line’s father played at Michigan State and he had hoped to line up for the Spartans:

Sophomore Zach Line, a Michigan native, didn’t know much at all about SMU when coach June Jones called to offer him a scholarship.

“I had never even been to Dallas,” Line said. “I just knew SMU was a small school in a big city.”

But Line bought into Jones’ plan to rebuild the Mustangs — and the warmer Texas weather — and is helping to make bowl trips an annual occurrence on The Hilltop. The 6-1, 225-pound running back collected 1,391 yards on 227 carries to lead Conference USA in rushing in 2010.

He’ll be a big factor in the SMU offense in Thursday’s Armed Forces Bowl against Army, a program that can appreciate a good, hard-nosed running back.

Line, though, didn’t figure he’d be a Mustang as he played his senior year of high school in Michigan. Line thought he’d run around the Michigan State Spartans’ backfield, attending his father’s alma mater and playing for the school he’d cheered for as a kid. But Michigan State, like the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision schools, didn’t offer Line a scholarship.

That’s when Bill Keenist, the Detroit Lions’ senior VP of communications, decided to help. Keenist’s son had played with Line at Oxford High School, and Keenist was convinced that Line could play at a top college football program. So he sent a DVD of Line’s exploits to Jones, a former coach for the Lions who was at Hawaii.

“A week later Coach Jones called and said they wanted me to visit Hawaii, but that was postponed and the next thing I know he’s at SMU,” Line said. “He called and said I needed to send him another tape because he couldn’t take that tape from Hawaii.”

Jones saw what he thought was a capable linebacker and recruited Line to SMU. But once Jones and the staff started slotting guys into positions, they moved Line to running back.

“Bill Keenist knew what we were looking for in a running back,” Jones said. “We want a guy that can block a guy off the edge and has quickness to run the ball when we hand it to him. Zach will block anybody and he can run.”

Last year, as a freshman, Line was the blocking back for Shawnbrey McNeal, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Line did find the end zone a handful of times in short-yardage situations, but was primarily a blocker. This season, having more carries has allowed him to show not only his toughness in carrying tacklers for extra yards but also his elusiveness.

“He has real good inside running instincts,” Jones said. “We didn’t give him the ball enough on some runs last year to really see that. He can run faster than what guys think he can run.”

Jones said Line probably runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. That speed combined with his powerful frame has made Line a critical part of the offense. He credits losing 17 pounds in the offseason — dropping from 242 to 225 — with allowing him to add a little quickness.

“Coming in here, I felt a lot quicker, more shifty,” Line said. “I took it upon myself that to do what I wanted to do, I had to lose weight. My quickness is in the box running and side to side. Getting 10 yards in the box is hard to do and that’s what they’re looking for. I feel like I can do that.”

 Before this season is out, don’t be surprised if Zach Line breaks Eric Dickerson’s rushing yards in a season record at Southern Methodist University. Accomplishing this despite the running back position – in the words of Dickerson – being the chosen position for Black athletes.

Actually, it’s a position that white athletes don’t get the chance to play that often because of The Standard. When they do, it’s hard to hold the line of white athletes not being talented enough to be a feature running back. Even when they were initially recruited to play linebacker, the lone offer they received to play college ball.

Just look at what Zach Line is doing for SMU.

How many white kids out there playing football in high school on Friday nights all across the country, never get the chance to play for their favorite college team (remember, Line wasn’t recruited by Michigan State, the school he grew up loving) because of The Standard, the belief that white guys aren’t talented enough to compete in a sport that fans and coaches have been conditioned to believe only Black people can excel in? 

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