Zach Line powers SMU running game

BURLESON, Texas -- 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."

Line also credits his wrestling background with helping him understand his body weight and what he can do with it. Line finished third in the state of Michigan for his classification in high school and loved the toughness the sport required.

"It was hard work and the discipline I had to have has helped me here, I think," Line said. "You have to have good balance and that helps me while blocking and running the ball."

Line has become a tough running back to bring down. And it turns out it's even tougher to keep him off the field. Line came down with a staph infection after rushing for 139 yards and a touchdown against TCU earlier this season. The infection was under his right armpit and the swelling was bad enough that Line couldn't lower his arm all the way.

"I was in the hospital for a few days, and it's fine now," Line said, as if it was no big deal.

A few days in the hospital didn't keep Line out of SMU's next game against Rice. He played in the second half and scored a late touchdown to put the game out of reach.

It was the kind of dedication that has earned the respect of his teammates.

"He's a leader as a quiet horse," said SMU assistant head coach Dan Morrison, whose emphasis is offense. "He's there every day. The kids trust him. They know he's going to do things right and go 100 percent and be there. He's one of those kinds of leaders."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.