By Chris Dell ’11
On the third and final day of the 2013 NFL Draft, former SMU running back Zach Line ’13 was waiting at his home in Oxford, Michigan, to hear where his NFL career would begin.
The first glimmer of hope came in the fifth round when Line received a phone call from an NFL coach telling him he would be the team’s next pick. But the team chose someone else. Another coach called with the same guarantee. Once again, Line was not selected. The same routine played out four more times throughout the draft, which ended with SMU’s most decorated running back since Eric Dickerson ’83 without a home.
Hours after that letdown, Line received a call from the Minnesota Vikings, and he accepted a rookie minimum contract as an undrafted free agent, facing long odds of making the team’s 53-man roster.
“You’ve got to trust coaches to make the right decisions,” Line says. “You see guys whom you’ve competed against get drafted, and you know you’re better. Once I got on the field, I thought I could make it.”
Currently, 10 SMU alumni are playing football in the NFL on Sundays. Some, such as Margus Hunt ’13 and Emmanuel Sanders ’10, were drafted early (second and third rounds, respectively). But many more have waited until the later rounds to find a team.
A year before Line began his rookie journey, wide receiver Cole Beasley ’12 faced the same improbable odds when he entered the Dallas Cowboys training camp as an undrafted free agent. Beasley finished his career at SMU with the third most receiving yards and second most receptions in team history, but he was not expected to catch any passes in the NFL because of his 5-foot-8 stature.
However, Beasley made a name for himself as he fearlessly ran routes through the middle of the field, eluding defenders with his speed. He ended up making the Cowboys’ 53-man roster and catching 15 passes for 128 yards in the 2012 season. His former teammate, Aldrick Robinson ’11, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins a year earlier, broke out in 2012 with 237 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches.
Many former SMU players now in the NFL, such as Beasley, Line, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum ’12 and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Darius Johnson, say they flew under the radar in college because of SMU’s lower national television exposure compared to schools in bigger athletic conferences. Nevertheless, head coach June Jones has been known in his six years on the Hilltop for grooming players who have succeeded in the NFL. One of the major changes Jones made when he came to SMU was creating an environment of personal accountability, where players are expected to practice and play with excellence and become hardworking men of integrity.
“A lot of players have their hands held throughout college, and when they get to the pros it’s a rude awakening,” says Jones, who played four years in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and later became their head coach for three seasons. “The way we treat players here is just like they’re treated in the pros. When we practice and when we meet together, we hold each other accountable. We coaches don’t yell, holler or scream, but everyone has to take care of his business if he’s going to play.”
Line was known as a player who took care of his business at SMU, and it was his work ethic and maturity that helped him beat improbable odds to make the Vikings’ final roster. He even started a game before suffering a season-ending injury in late September. Line hopes the injury is just a minor setback in the beginning of a long NFL career, one in which he could follow in the footsteps of other successful SMU graduates, such as New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead ’09, who won a Super Bowl in his rookie season in 2009 and made his first Pro Bowl in 2012.
By Chris Dell ’11