Leaning on running back Zach Line has paid dividends for SMU
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2012
The comparison caught Zach Line off guard.
When speaking on Line’s role in powering the SMU offense, head coach June Jones referred back to his days as an assistant with the Detroit Lions helping operate a run-and-shoot system.
“When we had Barry Sanders it was a similar deal in that we ran into (defensive) looks maybe sometimes we wouldn’t like to run into,” Jones said during Friday’s Sheraton Hawaii Bowl press conference at Aloha Stadium.
“But we give that extra guy to Zach and he finds a way to make him miss or run over him and Barry used to juke them. It was just a different way.”
While Line’s running style won’t soon be confused with the Hall of Famer’s, Jones credited the Mustang captain for carrying the offense this season while facing defenses keying on him as the lone running back in the four-receiver set.
“I was shocked by that comparison,” Line said. “But he cleared it up at the end.”
Actually, Line is finding his name mentioned alongside some of the game’s greats more often as he approaches the end of his college career.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior, who was recruited as a linebacker, enters Monday’s Hawaii Bowl with 4,114 career yards, second in school history to Eric Dickerson’s 4,450 and ahead of the totals of Reggie Dupard and Craig James.
If he can score twice against Fresno State, he would tie Dickerson and Doak Walker for the Mustangs’ career points record of 288.
“Obviously it’s been a great place for running backs and to be up there in the ranks with them is quite an honor,” said Line, Conference USA’s offensive player of the year.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Jones said. “Zach has been very productive. He’s a good football player and he pays attention to detail. He’s a pro.”
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The running game generally took a supporting role in Jones’ offenses during his tenure at Hawaii, and the Mustangs still threw the ball on 57 percent of their offensive plays this season.
But Line averaged a career-high 21.5 carries per game while the Mustangs broke in a revamped offensive line and a new quarterback in Texas transfer Garrett Gilbert.
“What we do is throw the football. We get the run because we throw the football,” Jones said. “Zach has put us all on his back because we haven’t thrown the ball as effectively as we need to throw it to allow the running back to have success.”
Even so, Line churned out 1,207 yards and scored 12 touchdowns this season and became the second back in school history to pass the 1,000-yard mark in three seasons. He shares that distinction with Dupard, who also played a bowl game in Aloha Stadium, running for 103 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame in the 1984 Aloha Bowl.
“When we throw the ball well in games, the run is wide open. When we run the ball well, the pass is open. It’s just the way this offense works,” Line said. “When the pass is not working I put it on myself to pick up yards and try to make plays.”
“In our blocking scheme a lot of times there is going to be one guy for me to beat,” Line said. “But normally I’m set up for success. We’ll have some kind of way of getting him to move so I can have some space. … It’s good to know Coach Jones has faith in me to do that, and obviously I’m blessed to be where I’m at.“
First-year Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter faced Jones-led Hawaii offenses as co-defensive coordinator at Nevada in 2005 and ’06 and as a Navy assistant in 1999. Where those UH offenses were heavily tilted toward the pass, DeRuyter’s expecting a more balanced look from SMU.
“(Defensive coordinator Nick Toth) and our defensive guys will have a plan for him, but it’s going to be a little bit of a headache,” DeRuyter said. “These guys are just going to have to tackle him because he’s a load.”