Surprising turn to historic run

Zack Abron wasn’t thinking about records after a rough freshman season.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:43 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Zack Abron sounds like a broken record. Fittingly, that suits the tailback who has made a habit of breaking Missouri football records.

Abron, who has broken the career scoring and touchdown records, enters Saturday’s game against Iowa State on the verge of another piece of MU history.

With 13 yards rushing, Abron will become the Tigers’ all-time leading rusher, passing Brock Olivo’s record of 3,027.

Although the record has been within Abron’s reach this season, he has rarely thought about the possibility of being MU’s rushing king. Missouri’s record has been the only one on his mind.

Barring injury, the record is almost a sure thing and Abron knows it, but he refuses to let his focus get away from his focus on the team.

“The records are nice, and it feels good to be close, but I just try to go out and do whatever I can to help the team be successful every week,” Abron said.

Three years ago, the record didn’t seem possible for Abron. He was too slow, out of shape and lacked the maturity to be an impact tailback.

Abron was an All-State running back at Francis Howell High his senior year and committed to MU early in his recruitment.

When Abron arrived to play for former coach Larry Smith, he wasn’t ready for the rigors of Division I football. He had gotten by in high school with his size and power, assets he gave to the Tigers, but he wasn’t ready for the speed of the defenses he was about to face.

After a redshirt year in 1999, Abron played in nine games the next season. He gained 502 yards, but averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. He lacked the quickness to get through holes and the speed to outrun defenders.

Abron was upset with his performance and the play of the team. He wondered whether he could become the player he set out to be when he arrived at MU.

Smith didn’t give Abron much of a chance to perform, but the team’s poor performance led to Smith’s firing.

Abron questioned his future. Rushing records weren’t a glimmer in his eye. All he wanted was some stability in his career.

“It has been rough over the years,” Abron said. “I have had two different coaching changes. It’s been up and down.”

Enter Gary Pinkel and a revamped program. Pinkel and his coaching staff immediately went to work on Abron. Where others saw a recruiting bust, Pinkel saw potential.

Abron had the talent, but Pinkel wanted Abron to get in shape, physically and mentally. Running backs coach Brian Jones had a large task, but Abron bought into what the program was selling.

Pinkel’s infectious work ethic rubbed off on Abron. Abron began to develop the one thing he lacked the most, determination.

Jones said Abron needed improvement in many areas.

“He needed to work on everything,” Jones said. “He had a ways to go. He applied himself and has really worked hard to make himself a great player.”

The results of Abron’s newfound attitude were clear. In Pinkel’s pro set offense, Abron excelled as the featured back. He ran for 783 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore.

Entering the 2002 season, hopes for Abron reached a new high. Abron met those hopes like he meets an opposing defender, head on.

Abron garnered the team’s Offensive Back of the Year award and was honorable mention All-Big 12 Conference. He finished with 758 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.

Visions of records and awards that at one point seemed so far off became reality for Abron.

As preseason practice began this season, Abron faced a challenge that had nothing to do with conditioning or speed in the form of highly regarded tailback Damien Nash.

Nash was all-everything coming out of East St. Louis High and Pinkel’s highest rated recruit. Instead of worrying about his job security, Abron did what he does best, work hard.

Abron never relinquished his spot at the top of the depth chart. At 5-feet-9, 228-pounds, he was in the best shape of his life and faster than ever.

Make no mistake, Abron doesn’t have the speed of Nash or the moves of quarterback Brad Smith, but somewhere along the way, he became a complete player.

The combination of power and speed made Abron almost impossible for one defender to tackle. Center A.J. Ricker dubbed Abron the “human bowling ball,” because of his ability to roll over defenders.

Suddenly, every MU rushing and touchdown record was in danger.

After overcoming a preseason left ankle injury and challenges for his job, Abron is having his best season.

Abron has compiled a career-best 972 yards and 12 touchdowns this season as the thunder to Smith’s lightning. His 2-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M broke Corby Jones’ scoring and touchdown records, giving Abron 240 points and 40 touchdowns.

Pinkel said Abron is the kind of person a rebuilding program needs as a foundation.

“Talk about a player that can turn a program,” Pinkel said. “To see him mature in every way is really exciting. What he wants to do is he wants to win. That’s very gratifying for a player that is so unselfish to have this opportunity to break a record.

“That just makes it that much better.”

Even with the record so close, Abron refuses to take credit for his accomplishments, giving praise to God and his offensive line.

Many record-breaking running backs are quick to buy dinner for their offensive lines or reward them with expensive gifts, but as a college student lacking money, Abron said he will have to figure out a cheaper alternative.

Senior tackle Rob Droege has been with Abron from the beginning and said it has been a joy to watch Abron become the punishing runner he is today.

“It has been fun playing with Zack because you block one guy and he runs over three,” Droege said. “It’s fun to see a guy’s unbelievable work pay off.”

Jones said Abron is the kind of running back any coach would be lucky to have and he is proud to have had the chance to work with him.

“He takes so much pride in what he does,” Jones said. “That’s just Zack Abron.”

Zack Abron indeed; not flashy, only the most productive running back in Missouri history.

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