Zach Line’s role change has paid off for him and the Saints
New Orleans Saints safety Chris Banjo says “what you see is what you get” with teammate Zach Line.
But there is one exception.
The Zach Line you see playing fullback for the Saints isn’t what SMU got from Zine when he was Banjo’s college teammate.
Line hardly ever handles the football with the Saints, but he was a star ball carrier with the Mustangs.
In fact Line’s name appears in the same neighborhood as Eric Dickerson’s in the SMU records books.
“It’s not a typo,” Banjo said. “It’s not an accident.”
Dickerson is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“That’s pretty good company,” Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas said.
Line was an unlikely candidate to have the second-most productive rushing career with the Mustangs when he arrived as a linebacker.
“I didn’t see running back as my spot,” Line said. “I liked the defensive side of the ball. I liked making the tackles.”
Line was ready to start making tackles when he headed to the practice field for the first time as a freshman when head coach June Jones called him over and told him to change jersey numbers.
“I never had a snap at linebacker,” Line said.
He was about to become a running back even though he was a bit too heavy in his linebacker body.
“I don’t know what it was, but (Jones) picked me,” Line said. “We needed a guy that could pass protect so I’ve always been the kind of guy that just rolls with whatever I need to do.”
It’s a trait that has served Line well.
“Zach was always a guy willing to do whatever it took for his team to win,” Banjo said.
Line was mostly a blocking back as a freshman, but he lost 20 pounds before his sophomore season because Jones and his staff made an adjustment to the running back’s role in the run-and-shoot offense.
At Hawaii, Jones had used “a big back and a small back.” But with the Mustangs he wanted a combination back.
“He was looking for a guy that could do both so a team couldn’t key, “OK now they’re running and now they’re passing,’” Line said. “That’s what they were looking for and that’s what I wanted to be.
“From the third game of my sophomore year through my senior year I never came out on offense.”
Banjo said Line’s skill and footwork were eye-opening to his teammates.
“It was fun t watch him barrel over guys, juke guys, out-run guys,” Banjo said.
In Line’s junior year, he was on pace to break Dickerson’s single-season record of 1,617 yards, but he suffered a foot injury and missed the last three games, finishing 123 yards short while having the second-most productive season in school history.
“It was a group effort by the o-line and I and everybody on that squad,” Line said. “We knew what the record was and as we got closer the anticipation grew and then I got injured with a few games left and all of them were mad at me for getting hurt. It was out of competitiveness. But it’s pretty cool.”
Line also finished as the runner-up to Dickerson for career yards and career touchdowns.
He was “a perfect fit for the perfect system,” Thomas said.
Despite his productivity, Line wasn’t drafted by the NFL. But that didn’t faze him.
“I always knew, whatever happens, happens,” Line said, “and I’ll make it work.”
So he put back on the 20 pounds he had dropped to make himself a more physical back for the NFL.
He had six offers to sign as a free agent and chose the Minnesota Vikings because Toby Gerhardt was in the final year of his contract and Line thought he might have a chance to succeed him as a fullback-sized feature runner if he proved himself as a rookie.
But the Vikings used Line as blocking fullback. In four seasons in Minnesota he had 13 carries and seven receptions, scoring three touchdowns.
“My philosophy has always been that I just want to have a hand in the final score whatever that is,” Line said. “I want to be on the field. It’s always been 11 guys on 11 so however it is that I fit into a game or an offense or special teams it doesn’t really matter to me.”
The Vikings during the 2017 preseason and the Saints picked him up. He was joining an offense that had a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, a running back coming off his first 1,000-yard season in Mark Ingram and a versatile rookie that coach Sean Payton had big plans for in Alvin Kamara.
New Orleans didn’t need Line to be much of a ball carrier.
“I like this offense and I think it fits me well,” Line said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better spot to be at right now.”
Ingram and Kamara set an NFL record last season by being the first teammates to gain 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same this season.
“I’m not saying this just because he’s my teammate, but I think Zach is the best fullback in the league,” Kamara said. “A lot of the things we do are because he’s doing his job so well. Mark and I know that and Zach knows that we know and appreciate that.”
Now the Saints are 11-2 going into their game at Carolina on Monday night. That already have won the NFC South championship and they are the No. 1 seed in the NFC with three games left in the regular-season.
“I think (Line) is the trademark of this team,” Kamara said. “It’s a lot of unselfish guys that don’t really care about the personal accolades but want the team to succeed over personal success.”
The Saints offense was struggling through its second consecutive sub-par game last week, trailing Tampa Bay 14-3 a week after a 13-10 loss at Dallas. Then Brees threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Line, starting a 25-0 second-half blitz.
“We were joking with (Line) the other week and I told him he needs to be on more fantasy teams,” Kamara said. “He just scored last week so somebody’s mad that they missed out on that.”
A lot of NFL teams missed out on a valuable role player in Line, someone Brees called “a grinder.”
“You’ve got to adapt to where you can fit the best to make that roster when it’s all said and done,” Thomas said. “I think it speaks volumes about his toughness and the smarts and foresight he had to say I’m going to find a way to make it in this league. Obviously playing fullback has been a pretty good deal for him.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…