I recently researched the NFL draft prospects of San Diego State senior running back Rashaad Penny and was shocked by what I found. One writer thought Penny might be a fifth round pick or lower and criticized his speed and power. Others called him a “fringe player” at best. I watched Penny both last year and this year and I also had season tickets during Marshall Faulk’s three seasons at SDSU. They were both great college running backs, but Faulk was a number two overall NFL draft pick and had a Hall of Fame NFL career. Many people don’t think Penny is in the same conversation as Faulk, but Penny has accomplished some things during his college career that Faulk never did. To make my point that Penny should be a number one pick, let me first recount his accomplishments in college to make my case.
To begin with, Penny was NOT a starting running back until his senior season. That may seem like a knock, but the reason why is because the Aztecs number one back for several seasons was the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher, Donnel Pumphrey. Despite that fact that he was the backup runner to Pumphrey in 2016, Penny still gained over 1,000 rushing while Pumphrey gained over 2,000 yards. No NCAA team had ever had both a 2,000 and 1,000 yard rusher on the same team before. Then this season the Aztecs became the only team to have to have two consecutive 2,000 rushing performances by two different players when Penny rushed for 2,295 yards. In his senior year Penny led the nation in rushing, total yards (2,974), and came in second in touchdowns (28). He won multiple honors for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week as well as Special Teams POW. More honors have rolled in as he has been named to several All-American teams. Anyone can argue that Penny is not a great running back and I would go toe-to-toe with someone on that. However, if you try to argue that he’s not a great returner, don’t even start. Currently Penny is the co-holder for the most kickoff returns for a touchdown in NCAA history. He has seven overall (two this season) and the first time his head coach, Rocky Long, decided to use him as a punt returner Penny took that one to the house. Twice during his senior season Penny had a game when he scored three different ways. From short distance or 100 yards away, Penny finds a way to get into the end zone.
Penny’s last game in an Aztecs uniform came in the Armed Forces Bowl and he didn’t disappoint. Despite the fact that Army’s national leading running attack chewed up most of the clock, Penny made the most of his few chances. On his first official carry of the game he went 81 yards for a touchdown. After seven touches he broke that bowl game’s rushing record. After ten touches he surpassed over 200 yards rushing for the fifth straight time. On his 14th carry he collected his fourth touchdown of the game. However, one of his best plays was when he didn’t even touch the ball. On a short kickoff Penny’s teammate, Juwan Washington, was returning the kick when Penny flattened one of the Army’s finest with a devastating block. He continued to block another cadet into the end zone as Washington scored. Yeah, he can block.
Did I mention that he also caught two passes for TDs as well? Penny may not be ambidextrous, he just looks like it. In the game against Nevada he took a pitch going to his left, stopped, and started to throw a pass left-handed. The receiver was covered so he decided to run instead (for a TD). In the game against Air Force he was running a crossing route from left to right when his quarterback threw the ball high and behind Penny. He just reached back with his right hand and snared the ball one-handed. Yeah, he has great hands.
I wondered what the knock on Penny was and why he was projected to go so low in the draft. One evaluation didn’t even have him in the top 20 rated backs in college. The argument that most would present is competition. The Mountain West Conference had some teams that were terrible at stopping the run. Penny did play against two PAC-12 teams this season and had over 100 yards against both Arizona State and Stanford. However, in both Aztec losses this season Penny failed to rush for over 100 yards. The two sub-par performances were due to poor blocking as there was also bad pass protection in those games as well. In fact, the Aztecs offensive line was young and inexperienced as only one senior was a starter and he missed several games with an injury. I think that it’s actually a tribute to Penny that he gained over 2,000 yards with such an inexperienced line. One other thing: There were several games when Penny was pulled in the third or fourth quarter because the Aztecs were so far ahead. Coach Long doesn’t care about stats during the games. He just wants to win and keep his number one back fresh for the next game. An example would be the San Jose State game when the Aztecs rushed for over 500 yards as a team. Penny only touched the ball once in the second half, which resulted in a long touchdown run that put him over the 200 yard mark. By that time the Aztecs were ahead by 35 points so there was no need to use Penny any more. If he had got the majority of carries in the second half, he might have rushed for 300, maybe 400 yards or more, and got more Heisman attention.
Now to address some other criticisms of Penny: Speed and power. There have been several times this season when Penny broke into the clear and it was a footrace between him and some defensive back. No matter what kind of angle the defender took, Penny outran him to the end zone. During the entire season Penny was only caught from behind once on an ankle tackle in the last game of the regular season. On one kickoff return I thought he would pause and pick up the blocker that was in front of him, but he simply ran by him and the defenders who were nearby. As for Penny power, after some encouragement from his coaches, Penny started turning opposing players into pancakes as well as dragging a linebacker about ten yards on one play. He’s a bull who can fly and that’s a rare combo.
One of the main reasons I think Penny should be a number one pick is that he answers two needs at the same time. Any team that needs a running back and a kickoff returner can get a two-for-one deal and that makes him extremely valuable. Kick returning seems to be a lost art in the NFL as most teams struggle to get returns to the 25 yard line. Penny could change all that for some team next season.
I’ve seen a lot of football in my time and I’ve seen some great backs. I’ve seen LT play for the Chargers. I’ve seen Faulk play for the Aztecs. Penny is as good as those guys and may even be better because he returns kicks and they didn’t. Anyone who saw Penny’s performance against Nevada this season should be convinced of Penny’s potential greatness and how special he is. In that game he had a 70 yard TD run called back for a penalty. Even without that run Penny finished with over 200 yards rushing, over 400 total yards, two TDs on kick returns and four TDs overall. If Penny isn’t a first round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, then some team is going to get an absolute steal when they draft him. If he’s lucky enough to play for a team with a good offensive line, he could become the NFL’s next offensive rookie of the year.