In the FCS Huddle: NFL dream not a day at the beach

Philadelphia, PA ( - The so-close-and-yet-so-far-away feeling for NFL prospects might be epitomized by Zach Zenner's hotel window at the East-West Shrine Game this week.

"My window looks out on the ocean," the three-time All-American running back from South Dakota State said Wednesday morning from St. Petersburg, Florida, "but I haven't been there yet."

Oh, surely there must be time for some pleasure amid all the business.

"I just got done taking a Troutwine test," Zenner pointed out.

Well then, that fun performance profiling surely reflected Zenner's intelligence and intangibles such as competitive desire and mental toughness. Perhaps his reaction time on the test mirrored his acceleration on the field.

"A color will be spelled out, like the word 'red,' for example," Zenner explained the psychological evaluation. "But the color of the word red will be black. And you're supposed to identify the color of the word. You read 'red,' but the color of the word is black, so you need to select 'black.'"

It's all in a day in the life of a player trying to make a bigger name for himself at a college football all-star games.

A player from an FCS program, like Zenner, has been a star for a while, but in the buildup to the NFL Draft in May, he has to overcome the stigma of playing on the smaller-school level. There are so many success stories, of course, but the perception still remains.

Just this past Saturday, Coastal Carolina All-American linebacker Quinn Backus represented the FCS level well by claiming American team MVP honors with six tackles and an 87-yard pick-six at the Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, South Carolina.

The three biggest all-star games are up next. The Shrine Game and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, California, will be played Saturday, while the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, will follow on Jan. 24.

Zenner will get a long look from NFL teams. What must be particularly intriguing to them is the 6-foot, 220-pound back is the only Division I player, and just the second in NCAA history, to rush for at least 2,000 yards in three different seasons.

He has a patient, north-south style, but can find another gear in the open field, as evidenced by five runs of 75 yards or more in his college career. He's also a solid pass catcher.

Zenner is one of 11 FCS players at the Shrine Game. At last year's game, an FCS quarterback, 2013 Walter Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo from Eastern Illinois, was named the offensive most valuable player.

"It's been great being here, it's been an honor, it's been interesting and a good experience so far," Zenner said.

"I think I'm doing OK. The interviews go pretty fast because I don't have any, like, previous arrests or anything to explain. On the field Monday, I was a little rusty, but yesterday I had a better practice. So, hopefully, I'll have another good one today.

"It takes a little bit to get used to. I think everyone did well in college. But I was part of a high school all-star team, so I've been in a similar situation. It's the same thing as getting to a college for the first time. Everyone was the big dude in high school. It's a similar feel except at a higher level."

While Zenner is focused on fulfilling his NFL dream - he also will participate at the league's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis next month - he has a pretty good fallback plan. As part of the National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Class, an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship awaits him for medical school.

The inaugural recipient of the Mickey Charles Award, which honors academic achievement by an FCS student-athlete, Zenner carried a 3.86 grade point average before completing his undergraduate work at SDSU last month.

But, oh, does the Minnesota native ever wish he could find time to get to the beach this week.

"I want to take advantage of it, but I won't have time today," he said. "Maybe tomorrow, I might."

FCS Players in Upcoming All-Star Games

All Times ET

East-West Shrine Game

Saturday, Jan. 17

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

4 p.m. (NFL Network)

East Roster (head coach Mike Singletary): Derrick Lott, DT, Chattanooga; Dean Marlowe, FS, James Madison; Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary; Davis Tull, DE/OLB, Chattanooga; Tye Smith, CB, Towson

West Roster (head coach Jim Zorn): John Crockett, RB, North Dakota State; Kyle Emanuel, DE, North Dakota State; Tevin McDonald, FS, Eastern Washington; MyCole Pruitt, TE, Southern Illinois; Xavier Williams, DT, Northern Iowa; Zach Zenner, RB, South Dakota State

NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

Saturday, Jan. 17

StubHub Center, Carson, California

4 p.m. (ESPN2)

American Roster (Mike Holmgren): Tony Bell, SS, UT Martin; Antoine Everett, OG, McNeese State; Jerry Lovelocke, QB, Prairie View A&M; Zack Wagenmann, DE, Montana

National Roster (Mike Martz): Malcolm Agnew, RB, Southern Illinois; DeAndre Carter, WR, Sacramento State; Ace Clark, SS, Western Carolina; Nick Easton, C, Harvard; Channing Fugate, FB, Eastern Kentucky; Jake Rodgers, OT, Eastern Washington; De'Ante Saunders, CB, Tennessee State; Ross Scheuerman, RB, Lafayette; Corey Simmons, TE, Northwestern State

Senior Bowl

Saturday, Jan. 24

Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Mobile, Alabama

4 p.m. (NFL Network)

Accepted Invites (head coaches Ken Whisenhunt of the North roster and Gus Bradley of the South roster): Nick Boyle, TE, Delaware; Imoan Claiborne, CB, Northwestern State; Zack Hodges, DE, Harvard; David Johnson, RB, Northern Iowa; Dezmin Lewis, WR, Central Arkansas; Kyle Loomis, P, Portland State; Robert Myers, OG, Tennessee State; Jaquiski Tartt, S, Samford; Lynden Trail, OLB, Norfolk State; Tyler Varga, RB, Yale