Shane Zylstra: Path to the NFL Draft

From a small town in Minnesota, through Minnesota State University Mankato, and on to the NFL. The journey may sound a little familiar, and with good cause. Adam Theilen is a household name now as a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, but this was the path that he walked to get there. As he heads towards the 2020 NFL Draft, Shane Zylstra is being billed as the next Adam Theilen. He’s conscious of it, but also knows he brings his own identity to the footballing table.

“Obviously it’s very humbling, you know. Adam’s a Pro Bowl wide receiver and has been very successful. We have gone down very similar paths, but he’d definitely be the first one to tell you that we’re two very different types of receivers. We each have our own capabilities and qualities that are different as well as having the same background. But obviously it’s very humbling to be in that conversation.”

Growing up watching Randy Moss in Minnesota

It’s a path that began in Spicer, Minnesota. As one of four brothers, Shane Zylstra was surrounded by football from an early age and it became the arena for the boys to try and assert their physical dominance. It was from there that he found a love for the sport. It would also mould the competitive spirit and physicality that would become a hallmark of his game.

“I grew up with two older brothers and one younger brother. We started playing at an early age in our yard. Obviously I had two older brothers, so I would always have to compete with them and try to get the best of them. It got pretty physical. That’s where it all rooted down to was just growing up playing with my brothers in the yard.”

Whilst the love for the playing the game came from the back yard, there was no shortage of inspiration at his beloved Minnesota Vikings as a young Shane Zylstra looked to model his game. Eventually, his number at MSU Mankato would come to reflect that inspiration.

“It was always the Vikings. Definitely a Halloween costume that we always used to do. Whether it was Randy Moss or Cris Carter at that time. They both dominated and did so well. They’re playing for the hometown team. It was obviously kinda cool to see them be so successful. They’re superstars when you’re that age.”

From the backyard to high school

He took football from the back yard to New London-Spicer High School. It was another example of football and family combining to fire up a passion inside a young Shane Zylstra.

“Obviously we don’t have the facilities like the down south schools have, like Texas and Florida, but the passion is there. We have winter here and you’re limited to what you can do in those months but when it comes to fall…My family grew up in a very small town and it’s like the stuff you see in the movies, with towns basically shutting down to go to the Friday Night Lights. It was very much like that, so it was a huge part of your family, and our community as well.”

Alongside football, he also excelled on the track, with all-state honours in the long jump and high jump during his time at New London-Spicer. The physical skills showcased on the track are transferable to football, something not lost on him.

“It’s just being an athlete. Showing that you’re more than just a football player. You’re athletic on multiple playing fields and multiple surfaces. Track translates very well with the speed, the jumping ability, the explosiveness. There’s a strong correlation between track athletes and football athletes and what they’re able to do.”

Shane Zylstra at New London-Spicer

Shane Zylstra
Photo Credit: Star Tribune

Shane Zylstra showed that correlation at New London-Spicer, receiving all conference and all area honours as a two-year starter on the Wildcats football team. Over his high school career he racked up 1531 receiving yards and two touchdowns, breaking the school record for career catches in the process.

“It was great. It started that drive, that passion, that energy for football. Obviously, I was able to play at a high level, so it really opened my eyes to, I belong here, I’ve been able to be successful. I’ve just really carried that work ethic and determination through high school and college, and I’ll take that to the next level as well.”

“I learned so much and was able to have a very successful career and it really jump started my career as far as the winning tradition. I went to Minnesota State Mankato and that was one of my decisions for going there. Coming from a winning program, we made it to the State Championship both my junior and senior year, so it was just a case of going from one winning program to the next.”

From one winning program to the next

Despite having a preferred walk on option at Division I North Dakota State, Shane Zylstra chose to continue the pursuit of his football dream at Minnesota State Mankato. The Mavericks hadn’t had a losing season since 2007 so the culture of winning was in place. It would continue during his time there, but their journey together would have to wait for a year, with Shane redshirting his freshman season in 2015.

“In hindsight it was the best thing for me. Being the dude in high school and then you go to college and have to sit out a year is definitely a humbling experience. But it’s a huge time for development, whether it’s mental or physical, it’s very important and I’m very glad I did it. At the time it was a very humbling experience, kind of a hard pill to swallow, but looking back it was definitely the right decision.”

Once he hit the football field in 2016, the development continued year on year for Shane Zylstra. After recording 499 receiving yards and seven touchdowns that first year, his production grew by around 400 yards each season, and he doubled his 2016 touchdown total in each of the following three years.

“I just never got complacent. That’s something that I’ve been like for a long time in my life. I did have what would be great years to some people, but I was never satisfied. I knew I could do more, knew I could get more yards, knew I could get more touchdowns. So, I just took the mentality going through the off-season, and tried to excel even further and beat my benchmark from the last year.”

Photo Credit: MSU Mavericks

Shane Zylstra sets the benchmark at Mankato

That approach has led to a new benchmark being set for any wide receiver that comes through Minnesota State Mankato. Shane Zylstra now holds the program record for single season receiving yards (1669 yards), single season receptions (80), and for single season touchdowns (18).

Despite the individual success, the ultimate team goal eluded Zylstra and the MSU Mavericks during his time there.

“Something that we preach a lot at Mankato is the whole team aspect. Our team goal was to win the National Championship Game and we came up short, just eight points short this year. That was disappointing. All that hard work, we worked so hard to get there my sophomore and junior year and to finally get there my senior year was surreal. It was crazy to be a part of that National Championship Game, and be a part of that atmosphere in McKinney, Texas, it’s just unfortunate that we came up short. That fourth down play came down to me, personally, dropping that football. That’s a hard pill to swallow. I try not to get caught up and live in the past too much though.”

Uphill Battle to get to the next level

The focus for Shane Zylstra is very much on the future. The 2020 NFL Draft wide receiver class is one of the deepest we’ve seen for a while and as a smaller school prospect, that journey to the NFL Draft is one that’s even more difficult than for players at more recognised programs. If you put his 2019 numbers in the mix with FBS and FCS players, he would have led the FCS in receiving yards and have been second behind LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase in the FBS. He knows it’s not as simple as that, whilst recognising that the opportunity to make it to the next level is very real.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle. Being from a smaller school you’ll always have that knock on you, whether you were productive like I was or not. They’re always going to say “oh well he never faced the competition of a Division I school”. I completely understand where they’re coming from but obviously Adam Theilen paved a way. I think scouts are starting to realise that there is talent at every level, there are players that can play in the National Football League that didn’t necessarily go to Division I. It’s definitely an uphill battle but I try not to focus on that. I’m Shane Zylstra, wide receiver. It doesn’t matter where I came from, I’m still going to compete against you.”

Photo Credit: MSU Mavericks

Shane Zylstra competes at the College Gridiron Showcase

He put that competitive mindset, that was born in a back yard in Spicer, Minnesota, to the test against Division I talent early on in this NFL Draft process. The College Gridiron Showcase gives over 300 players the opportunity to compete in front of NFL scouts, and Shane made the trip to Dallas to take part in it.

“It was an awesome experience. I was very fortunate to get invited to the bigger showcase, the “Division I” showcase. It was really great for me being a Division II guy to go up against those Division I guys. I think I stood out against those guys, and I think it opened some scouts eyes so I can get that narrative off of “he’s just a Division II guy”. I was very fortunate to be invited to that. When I was down in Dallas I met with a few teams. It was great to connect and get on their radar. Hopefully they’ll go back and watch some film and be able to see what I could do in college.”

Tale of the tape

What will they see when they put that film on?

“I’m a competitive guy. I’m a big bodied receiver that’s able to compete for the ball very well and I’m able to make catches in traffic. That’s what I pride myself on. Not only that deep threat down the field, but also making contested catches over the middle in traffic as well.”

Another big bodied receiver that came out of Minnesota State Mankato was Tywan Mitchell. He held some of the records that Shane Zylstra has broken during his time as a Maverick. Mitchell played two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals but transitioned to tight end in his second year.

“Absolutely that’s on the table. I’ve had many different conversations with people about it. I’m very open to it. Like I told them and I’ll tell anyone, I don’t care where I’m at, I just want to be on an NFL team and contribute to help that team win. If that’s putting on some weight and blocking as a tight end, I don’t have a problem with that all.”

Brother Brandon provides a valuable resource

For now, he is focused on training for any opportunity to showcase his talent in front of evaluators. Minnesota State Mankato don’t hold a pro day but there is the potential for an appearance at the Minnesota Gopher pro day.

Whilst training, he has some valuable resources to hand.

His older brother, Brandon, is a wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, having made it to the NFL as undrafted free agent out of Division III Concordia College with the Minnesota Vikings.

“Brandon is a phenomenal resource that I’ve been able to utilize throughout the last three or four years. He’s actually living with me right now, just for a week, and we’re doing a bunch of different drills. When we’re not doing drills, or lifting and working out, we’re in my apartment going over routes and the different verbiage for the NFL. Between all aspects of being a professional on the field, being a professional off the field, and what it really takes. All aspects of what it takes to be a player in the National Football League I’ve been able to take from him. I’ve been very blessed with that.”

Shane Zylstra
Photo Credit: Twitter

From one Adam Theilen to the next

Then there’s the man whose journey Shane Zylstra has drawn comparison to as he heads towards the NFL.

“I actually reached out to him [Adam Theilen] a few weeks ago and we have some time set up later in March when we’re going to get together and get some on field work. I’ve already formulated a list of questions that I have to ask him, just to be able to pick his brain whilst we’re doing all of that. There’s so many uphill battles with being that Division II guy so I just want to know what the biggest change was from Division II to the NFL.”

Shane Zylstra to the Minnesota Vikings?

Both Brandon Zylstra and Adam Theilen have been able to pull on the purple of the Minnesota Vikings in their professional career. As a lifelong Vikings fan, what would it mean to Shane Zylstra to follow their path all the way to the doors of U.S. Bank Stadium?

“I’ll take any of the 32 teams! But, playing for the hometown team, my brother was obviously able to experience it, it’s a little different feeling I think. Being from Minnesota, growing up here, and like we talked about, seeing Randy Moss, Cris Carter, those players, obviously being in their shoes so to speak would be a pretty special feeling.”

The next Adam Theilen? After exceeding Theilen’s career in college, time will tell what Shane Zylstra can achieve at the next level.

Maybe the next kid from Minnesota State Mankato will be dubbed the next Shane Zylstra.

That would be a pretty special feeling.

OLIVER HODGKINSON

COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER

OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.

Feature Image Credit: MSU Mavericks

Huge thanks to Shane Zylstra for taking the time to talk to us. Also to Case Donahue at Team IFA for helping to connect us.