Just one game into his college football career, running back Zane Dudek ’21 found himself making headlines with his trademark blend of elusive and electric running. In his Yale debut against Lehigh, the halfback breached the goal line twice on just a measly nine carries, but that was all he needed to amass a whopping 131 yards on the ground.

Even after that performance, head coach Tony Reno was keen to avoid jumping the gun.

“I think offensively Zane Dudek has probably had as a good a preseason as I’ve seen in awhile for a freshman,” Reno said, following the Bulldogs’ Week 1 victory. “I think he’s got some unique ability to run the football … [But] one game does not a season make, so we’ll see what [he does] this season.”

Now nine games into the 2017 campaign, however, one can no longer keep the hype surrounding Dudek under wraps. Seemingly one of the most talented players Reno has had at his disposal during his six-year tenure, the 5-foot-9 first year from Pennsylvania continues to string together dominant performance after dominant performance. He enters the final weekend of the season as the favorite to win Ivy League Rookie of the Year — and that’s among his least-impressive accomplishments.

The first year has already left his mark on the Yale record books. In just nine games, he broke the rookie records etched by the great Levi Jackson ’49, including rushing yards in a season, total yards in a season and rushing touchdowns. Dudek has won the last four Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards.

On the national stage, Dudek places in the top seven in the Football Championship Subdivision in total rushing yards, rushing yards per carry, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards, to name just a few categories. He was named to the watch list for FCS Rookie of the Year.

In retrospect, the rookie’s skills were evident long before he first donned a gameday jersey. According to Reno and other members of the team, Dudek went virtually untackled throughout the preseason, including during one drill that remains ingrained in the memory of left guard Dieter Eiselen ’20.

“I’ve never seen a running back as elusive as Zane Dudek,” Eiselen said. “I remember during camp this year, there was a drill that he had to do with the linebackers. It’s basically just a one-on-one tackling drill, and I don’t think any of the linebackers were able to tackle him.”

Success is nothing new for Dudek. In his senior year at Armstrong High School, the running back broke the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League’s record for rushing yards in a season, reaching 2,955 yards in just 11 games. He also briefly owned the record for most rushing yards in a game, before it was broken earlier this year, and won a WPIAL crown in the 100-meter dash.

Yet, when it came time to commit to a college, Dudek was faced with a woeful lack of offers from Football Bowl Subdivision schools despite his superb resume. Apart from walk-on offers from Penn State and Stanford and one scholarship offer from Kent State, the now-rookie’s top choices came from the Ivy and Patriot leagues.

Luckily for Yale, that allowed Dudek to find his way to New Haven, where he has helped the Bulldogs win their first conference championship in over a decade. The original plan, based on Reno’s philosophy of running-back-by-committee, was for Dudek to fall in line behind Team 145’s top duo of running backs: Deshawn Salter ’18 and Alan Lamar ’20. But when Lamar — the Second-Team All-Ivy talent from a season ago — went down with an ACL tear in a preseason scrimmage at Brown, Dudek’s role increased dramatically.

The Salter-Dudek combination worked flawlessly for the first half of the season, as Dudek’s shiftiness and 4.43 40-yard dash speed was a perfect complement to Salter’s physical style. Yet since Salter succumbed to injury in Week 7’s contest with Columbia, Dudek has been thrust into the workhorse role.

As the primary back, Dudek has built upon an already impressive season. The phenom has carried the ball 73 times with a 7.1 yards-per-carry average in the Bulldogs’ last three games, and scored three touchdowns in each of the last two games. Although Reno has increasingly relied on the first year, Dudek has taken the uptick in usage in stride.

“As you look at the season, we were very fortunate to have Deshawn and Zane and just alternate them back and forth,” Reno said, following Dudek’s 35-carry performance in Yale’s title-clinching win over Princeton. “[Zane] didn’t have as many [carries] as he normally would. We feel we kind of ‘banked’ some carries. We went to the bank today and took some money out on that one.”

With a shot at an outright championship on the line, Reno will not hesitate to call Dudek’s number again come Saturday. Team 145’s newly-minted workhorse has accumulated 1069 yards on 134 carries to go along 15 total touchdowns over the course of this season. Now, Zudek will look to add to his totals against Harvard. It’s not often the case, but the best player at this years edition of The Game may be one that has yet to complete a full semester of college.

Still, if asked about his successes this season, Dudek will more than likely stray from mentioning himself. He will first deflect the credit to what is arguably the best offensive line in the Ancient Eight, and then to his coaching staff. For all the accolades he has garnered, including five Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors, the bonafide star has kept it all in perspective.

“To be able to win it for the guys beside me, that’s what the best feeling is,” Dudek said after the win last weekend. “To be able to send Deshawn Salter out the way he’s supposed to be sent out, with a championship ring, send [captain and cornerback] Spencer [Rymiszewski ’18] out the way he’s supposed to be sent out, with a championship ring, that’s what we do it for, and that’s the best feeling.”

Dudek will make his third career start in his first-ever Harvard-Yale rivalry game this Saturday.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Joey Kamm | joseph.kamm@yale.edu