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Zak Zinter’s greatness can only be understood through the greatness of others

Michigan’s team captain and right guard left a legacy similar to another Wolverine great.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 11 Michigan at Penn State Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When most think back on Michigan’s 1997 national championship team, the first player that comes to mind is understandably Charles Woodson. He was one of the most dynamic players in the history of college football and rightfully won the Heisman Trophy over Tennessee’s Peyton Manning and Marshall’s Randy Moss.

But who comes to mind after Sir Charles? Brian Griese? Chris Howard? Anthony Thomas? How many names would the average fan rattle off before they mention perhaps the best player on the entire team, guard Steve Hutchinson?

Hutchinson was only a freshman on the ‘97 squad, but was already a starter and a pivotal piece to the offense. By the time he left Ann Arbor, Hutchinson had compiled a 41-8 record, earned two-time All-American status, was a team captain and won a national championship. After an NFL career that many describe as the best career ever for a guard, Hutchinson was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

When reflecting back on his own career, several moments came to mind, but one that Hutchinson holds the nearest is the memory of blocking for Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander during an MVP season.

“It was special,” Hutchinson said. “An offensive lineman doesn’t really have stats for himself, so any time you get that rushing record or a touchdown record like that it’s pretty big for us, too.”

Without stats, offensive linemen are usually an afterthought. Linemen are typically recognized as the byproduct of another player’s success or blamed for someone else’s failures. And when most think back on the 2023 Michigan Wolverines, the first players that will come to mind are Blake Corum, Mike Sainristil, and J.J. McCarthy.

But perhaps the best player on the team and the greatest catalyst for sustained team success for this most recent three-year run was right guard Zak Zinter.

Zinter leaves Ann Arbor with a 38-7 record (missed the Northwestern game in 2021; missed the final three games of 2023), unanimous All-American status, a team captaincy and one national championship. During his four years at Michigan, Zinter cemented himself as one of the best offensive linemen in the program's history, and the best guard since Hutchinson.

Regardless if it was he was blocking next to tackles Andrew Stueber, Karsen Barnhart, Trente Jones or Myles Hinton to his right, or centers Andrew Vastardis, Olu Oluwatimi or Drake Nugent to his left, Zinter was always simultaneously a connecting piece and dominating force that raised the level of all those around him.

In the run game, Zinter was a road-grader who could operate just as effectively in a phone booth or out on the perimeter in space. In pass protection, Zinter’s devastating punches and quick feet could often free him up to handle more work per play than most in college football. But without pure stats, it is hard to quantify Zinter’s impact without looking at the success of others.

In 2021, Zinter was the best offensive lineman for a unit that won the Joe Moore Award while paving the way for running back Hassan Haskins as he set the single-season rushing touchdowns record (20). This season also included a historic offensive line performance against Ohio State in what the late John Madden called as good as he had ever seen.

In 2022, Zinter was a key member of the first offensive line to ever repeat as winner of the Joe Moore Award. Zinter and company blocked for running back Blake Corum who finished with 1,463 yards — the eighth most all-time by a Michigan running back — and was the Heisman frontrunner until an untimely knee injury in Week 11. If Corum had performed at his season rushing average in Michigan’s final three, possibly four, games, he would have set the single-season rushing yards record at Michigan and potentially have broken the 2,000-yard barrier.

After Corum went down, Zinter and the boys up front didn’t lose a beat and helped Donovan Edwards rush for 216 yards against Ohio State in a top-five, undefeated showdown in Columbus. This season also included a historic rushing performance against Penn State in which the Wolverines as a team rushed for 418 yards, the third-most Penn State has allowed in a single game since they started tracking stats in 1947.

For 12 games in 2023, Zinter helped Corum break Haskins’s single-season rushing touchdown record (27), set the all-time Michigan total touchdowns record (61), all-time rushing touchdowns record (58) and score the most career points for a player to ever put on the maize and blue (356).

Much like the year prior, this season featured a historic performance against Penn State. With offensive tackles struggling on the road, interim head coach Sherrone Moore put the game firmly in Zinter’s hands. In order to secure a road victory against a top-10 opponent and a top-three defense, the Wolverines ran the ball 32 (!) straight times to topple the Nittany Lions.

After Mike Hart graduated, Michigan had only seen two running backs (Fitz Toussaint, 2011; Karan Higdon, 2018) rush for more than 1,000 yards. With Zinter upfront the last three seasons, the Wolverines have had three 1,000-yard rushers and were this close to having two more — Corum rushed for 952 yards in 2021 and Edwards rushed for 991 in 2022.

Without a player of Zinter’s caliber anchoring the offensive line, this three-year run isn’t possible. Zinter will never be the headliner when looking back on Team 144 and he may not even be the third or fourth player mentioned. But like Steve Hutchinson was for his team in 1997, Zinter was perhaps the best player on the greatest Michigan team ever.