McGrane: Penny is Worth Every Cent to Aztecs
Aug. 7, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Penny is Worth Every Cent to Aztecs
A self-acknowledged mama’s boy, Rashaad Penny’s head hits the pillow every night with the knowledge that there’s a monster under the bed.
Like an unimpeded linebacker with little but mayhem in mind, Penny knows what’s coming. He’s seen it unfold before, be it in dreams or broad daylight.
The monster wants a piece of him, wants to know his every waking thought. Wants to know his fears, his hopes, and whether he’s cut out to chase a ghost.
Wants to know if he has the wherewithal to succeed the king.
“It’s tough, because I’ve never been through anything like this,” he said. “In high school, when you’re the guy, you get a few newspaper articles written about you, but now you’ve got a whole city watching you.”
It’s what happens when you’re a “backup” running back who finishes ninth in your league in rushing. It’s what happens when Twitter cranks up a campaign soliciting Heisman hashtags, the ones like “#PennyMakesCents” and “#luckypenny” and “#PennyisMoney.” It’s what happens when you do business for a program that concluded 2016 having earned an Associated Press Top 25 ranking for the first time in nearly 40 years and is gunning for a third straight Mountain West tile.
It’s what happens when your cousin, now employed by the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, has left you a void to fill that falls somewhere on the spectrum of interstellar space.
Donnel Pumphrey left San Diego State not only lugging the legend of being the best back in Aztec history, but in the annals of NCAA lore. He’s the guy whose 52-foot “Pumphrey for Heisman” banner decorated the west side of University Towers at Montezuma and 55th Street for the duration of the 2016 season. The man who hoisted records out of sight, rushing for more than 100 yards in a game a school-record 33 times. The man who sits atop an NCAA rushing list whose previous leader held title for 17 years.
The man who created the monster.
“All of the attention that DJ got, all of the accolades, he deserved it,” said Penny, a senior who moves into the starting tailback spot having averaged a staggering 7.5 yards per carry last season. “Everything that he’d done in his first three years just all came together for him as a senior.
“I love that, but I personally don’t focus on any accolade. People need to know that I’m a team guy first. I will never put anything in front of the team. There’s nothing that will ever come between me and this team. That’s how I was raised; that’s how I was built. Being a part of this program has definitely made me into what I am today. Would I love to get the kind of recognition (DJ) did? Sure, but I’d also like to see 10 other guys get it with me.”
Pumphrey exited SDSU as the Mountain West’s two-time Offensive Player of the Year. Penny enters the season as the league’s two-time Special Teams Player of the Year. In addition to their ability to break big runs at anytime, both are accomplished receivers, having caught a combined 42 passes for 455 yards (10.8 avg.), respectively, in 2016.
But this is where the bloodlines diverge. The electrifying Pumphrey stood 5-9 and weighed 180 pounds. Penny, who is no less blessed with frightening speed, is 5-11 and weighs 220, easily the biggest back employed by the Aztecs since Lynell Hamilton amassed 2,191 yards from 2003-07.
“I honestly have no idea how San Diego State does it,” Penny said with a laugh. “They love small running backs here, I’ll tell you that. I’m the biggest starting running back they’ve had here in a long time. I don’t know why they ever took an interest in me, but I’m glad they found me.”
The idea of alternating a starter with an equally productive backup has long been the modus operandi of Jeff Horton, the team’s associate head coach who also serves as offensive coordinator and running backs coach. During his seven-year tenure, Horton has mixed and matched such devastating duos as Ronnie Hillman and Walter Kazee; Kazee and Adam Muema; Muema and Pumphrey; Pumphrey and Chase Price; Pumphrey and Penny. All six except Kazee had at least one 1,000-yard season.
In 2017, the two-headed hydra is expected to feature Penny and sophomore Juwan Washington, who merely averaged 8.0 yards on 55 carries last year.
But make no mistake: After spending three years waiting his turn, Penny is more than a bit eager to showcase skills that allowed SDSU last year to become the first school in FBS history to feature a 2,000- and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season.
“Honestly, that’s why I’m so excited, because I now I’m going to get my chance to do what every other (starting) back in the nation gets to do,” Penny said. “There’s a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, because a lot of people really don’t know what I’ve done as a running back with DJ having been here. And that’s not a bad thing. I think I played a great role in the way that I contributed to the team, and the team played a great role in contributing to what I did. I felt good about the situation I was in the last couple of years in being the backup to DJ.
“But now I’m going to get that chance to show people what I can really do without DJ being in front of me. I learned so much from him. The way he plays has definitely rubbed off on me. It’s kind of like being a DJ 2.0, I guess.”
Said Horton: “Everybody wants to say Rashaad was a No. 2 running back, a backup, but he wasn’t any backup last year. Pump may have been No. 1 and Rashaad 1A, but you don’t rush for over 1,000 yards being a backup.
“His sophomore year, we developed some things for him with the fly sweep, and last year he stepped up and really solidified, in my mind, anyway, that he was a starting running back. And I expect he’ll secure that role even more this year. He’s a kid whose mom and dad have done a great job of raising him. He’s very humble, very mature and very family-oriented. I’ve never heard one bad thing come out of his mouth in the four years that I’ve been with him. He’s just a great person that takes everything in stride. You won’t meet one person who doesn’t like Rashaad.”
Save the occasional defense, of course. In SDSU’s final nine regular-season games of 2016, Penny rushed for more than 100 yards five times, including a 208-yard performance at Nevada that necessitated just 10 carries.
Nonetheless, there are still those — and rightfully so — who view Penny as a kick returner non-pareil, the guy who ranks first among active FBS kick returners in touchdowns (five) and second in return average (30.1). Now that his workload is expected to increase to 25-30 carries per game (he averaged 10.5 last year), the Mountain West’s preseason Special Teams Player of the Year is likely to hand a sizable share of the kick return duties to Washington. No less a home-run threat, Washington averaged 29.3 yards on 10 returns last season, including a 92-yard return for a touchdown at Wyoming.
“I’m going to do what’s best for this team,” Penny said. “If they don’t want me returning kicks, there’s no point arguing with them. Who’s to say the next guy won’t be even better than I was? And that’s what I’ve told Juwan. He’s going to fill the role that I had and he’s getting better every day. There’s no reason why the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year shouldn’t still be at San Diego State.”
Or the next guy with a 52-foot banner cascading over the side of a dormitory.
“From where I’ve come from, and having always been looked at as the No. 2 guy, your expectations are high, but never as high as when you’re the starter,” he said. “It’s a stressful thing, but I’m never thinking about that on the field. I’m going to get through it. If there’s something that I think I need to improve on, then I’m going to keep working. I’m always going to judge how well I play on whether or not we win the game. Everybody on this team is behind me the same way I’m behind them. They believe in me and I believe in them.
“I developed a role in this program and took it head-on. I’ve got 10 other guys with me who are helping to put (my talent) on full display. There are always going to be guys who brag about it, but it’s just like DJ’s situation last year. We were more excited about him getting the awards than he was. My teammates are always saying things like, ‘Penny for Heisman, Penny for Player of the Year,’ and all I can say back to them is thank you. I truly appreciate it. But my focus is on being a role model for these guys. If people are going to look up to you, you better be ready to earn it.”
“I’ve never taken on a role like this,” he continued. “It makes you a little nervous, but it’s given me so much energy. There’s pressure that comes with it, but I’m ready. I don’t know how DJ handled it, but I text him every day for advice to get his feelings about it. He tells me, “It’s simple, just ball.’ It’s like when Coach Horton took me under his wing here and always talked about playing every season like it was my last. And now it is my last. I’m going to go as hard as I possibly can, every play in practice, every play of a game.”
The monster doesn’t stand a chance.