Zach Line is about to enter his senior season at SMU and like the rest of the Mustangs' senior class, his goal for 2012 is a simple one. Not only do Line and his fellow seniors want to win the Conference USA title after falling just short in 2010, but they also want to cap off their collegiate careers by helping guide the Ponies to a fourth straight bowl game, a streak that many considered practically impossible just a few short years ago.
The Michigan native is a preseason All-Conference USA pick and has been a first team all-conference performer for June Jones' Mustangs both as a sophomore and junior. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back comes off a season where he ran for 1,224 yards to lead C-USA and scored 17 touchdowns. He averaged 122.4 yards per game, most in C-USA and seventh-most in the nation, numbers that become all the more impressive considering he missed the final three games of last season due to a foot injury.
As a sophomore, he ran for 1,494 yards, second-most in school history, behind only Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. SMU started two-a-days earlier this month in preparation for its Sept. 2 opener at Baylor and Line can't help but realize he is indeed starting his final season on the Hilltop.
"You don't realize how fast things did go. I came in to play linebacker and was thrown into a position where I could have a key role on the team not just on the field, but that allows you to lead by example. It's kind of cool to see where the program has gone since I've been here," he said. "It's been a constant rebuild since the death penalty but I think SMU has gotten over the hump and made some great strides. It's a cool thing to be part of all of that."
And in what has to be considered nothing short of great news for all Mustang fans, his foot is completely healed and Line is now ready to finish what has been a stellar career at SMU with an exclamation point.
"Yeah, the foot was a six-month healing process so after six months, it got cleared. Obviously, didn't feel 100 percent right at six months, but that running and cutting I had to get comfortable with it again. It was more of a mental thing for me," he said. "I didn't trust it because I'd been in the boot for so long and I'd had an insert in my shoe for so long that finally this summer I started pushing my boundaries. During camp I haven't felt any lingering effects from the injury."
He originally came to University Park as a linebacker but was instantly switched to running back and played as SMU's short yardage back early on in his collegiate career. And as he thinks back to when he first arrived on campus, he can't help but realize how much he's truly changed since he was a freshman who didn't know what to expect in a new environment.
"Well, I came from Michigan. I'm used to having my parents around to kind of help me through stuff and manage my time a little better, but since I've been here I've really grown up. It really reinforces you're not young anymore. You need to manage your money, manage your time, pick the right friends," Line said. "I think I've just learned the right types of people to hang out with, who will get me to where I need to be and what I need to do to better myself as a football player, a student athlete and a person."
One interesting thing about his final season at SMU is that he will share the experience of being a senior with his younger brother Prescott, who like Zach, was a standout high school linebacker back in their home state of Michigan who made the switch to offense upon arriving at SMU and playing for Jones.
"I think it's bigger for him than for me. I've kind of gotten into my routine down here. I know how things go but I know how hard it is to come down here without anybody down here. It's awesome because he's one of my best friends. So it's awesome to hang out with him while teaching the offense," Line said. "He's in that walking stage now. There's walking, crawling and then you run. I'm just trying to help him learn the offense as fast as possible because on good teams the seniors have got to help the freshmen grow up fast so they can play."
During his first three seasons with the Ponies, he has been a top-notch running back and a big focal point of the SMU offense. But one part of his game that has been somewhat overlooked is his ability to be a receiver out of the backfield. His career high for receptions was the 17 catches he had in 2010 for 163 yards, a total he could eclipse in 2012 as he is now more comfortable as a receiver than ever before.
"They haven't really utilized me much in the past years catching the ball out of the backfield other than screen passes. More this camp, I've kind of been jumping in there. I think just getting confidence more in my hands this camp. That's all it really is-having confidence and just catching the ball every day," Line said.
As a freshman, he was part of a 2009 SMU team that won the Hawaii Bowl and ended a bowl drought for the Mustangs that had dated back to the Pony Express days of 1984, some 25 years. The Ponies have been to a bowl game in each of his three seasons and now he and his fellow seniors want to close out their college careers in a fourth and final bowl game, which would be quite an achievement for Jones and the program, especially considering what a low point SMU football was at when June was hired to turn things around in 2008.
"That's huge. A lot of the guys that are still here with me, we've been here for all of them and we all think the same thing. It's an awesome thing that we are the class that helped turn things around," Line said. "We were able to come in with some of the older guys that had gone 1-11 and you could see just how bad this program was. When we went to Hawaii, you could see the fans and the community has started to change. They still didn't buy in but as we started going to more and more bowl games, it becomes a winning tradition. Now we expect to go and if we're not there something needs to change."
But in a way, the evolution of Zach Line since coming to SMU in 2009 has mirrored the development of the Mustangs over the same span of time. He originally came to the Hilltop as a linebacker, switched to running back, first seeing time as a short yardage back before then becoming a focal point of the Pony offense as a sophomore. Line has never looked back, has continued to lead by example and has developed into the second-best running back in SMU history, ranking behind only some guy named Dickerson. And to think Zach still has one year left to ink his name further into the school record books, which should make keeping tabs on how he fares as a senior interesting to say the least.