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Eagan's Zach Zenner could play a big role for Detroit against Vikings for a change

Detroit Lions running back Zach Zenner (34) runs the ball during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Dec. 16, 2018. Timothy T. Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- Zach Zenner has gone from out of work to being the Detroit Lions’ most reliable runner.

The Eagan (Minn.) High School graduate was waived by the Lions on Sept. 12 off the reserve-injured list two weeks after he injured his back in the preseason finale. But on Nov. 6, the Lions waived running back Ameer Abdullah and re-signed Zenner.

Abdullah was picked up by the Vikings, and has become their primary kickoff returner. And Zenner could play a significant role when Minnesota plays at Detroit on Sunday, Dec. 23.

Zenner, who originally joined the Lions as an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota State in 2015, played mostly on special teams after re-signing, carrying just four times in his first four games. But with starting running back Kerryon Johnson getting knock out for the season with a knee injury, Zenner has 22 attempts for 99 games in the past two games.

It’s the second-best two-game stretch of his four-year career. He concluded the 2016 season with 32 carries for 136 games over two games.

One thing Zenner hasn’t done is have much of a role running the ball against the Vikings; he has five carries for six yards in five career games against his home-state team. But that could change Sunday.

“He’s run the ball well,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said of Zenner’s recent games of 54 yards at Arizona and 45 at Buffalo. “He’s physical. I’ve seen him make some really good cuts. He does a nice job in pass protection. They’re using him some in the receiving game as well, so I would assume we’ll see more of him.”

Through a Lions spokesman, Zenner declined a request this week for a phone interview.

Zenner grew up a Vikings fan and had three straight 2,000-yard rushing seasons at South Dakota State. Since entering the NFL, he has worked out regularly during offseasons with Vikings receiver Adam Thielen.

“He’s a hard-working guy,” Thielen said. “He’s smart, and he plays the game the right way. So you root for guys that do it the right way and bust their tail in the offseasons and do everything they can to help the team.”

Zenner has been a special-teams ace since joining the Lions. After Johnson was hurt Nov. 18, Zenner had just three carries in the first two games he missed before first-year coach Matt Patricia gave him a bigger role.

“Zach is someone that approaches work every single day with a great attitude and a great preparation and a great mental state of learning,” Patricia said. “He’s just a guy you trust to put in there in any situation.”