McGrane: It’s a Numbers Game for Aztec Running Backs

Senior Rashaad Penny (left) and sophomore Juwan Washington (right).
Aug. 26, 2017

2017 Mick McGrane Features
Recognition Won't Slow Aztecs' Resolve (Jan. 13)
Aztecs Prepared to Assume Center Stage (Jan. 20)
Continuity Fortifies Aztecs' Stronghold (Feb. 3)
For SDSU, It's What's Up Front That Counts (March 3)
Lakalaka Looms Large in Aztec LB Corps (March 15)
Aztecs' Baron Gets Kick out of Notoriety (March 17)
Ricks Hopes to Put Best Foot Forward (March 20)
Aztecs Lampoon Pomposity of Power 5 (March 22)
Penny is Worth Every Cent to Aztecs (Aug. 7)
Kelly Takes Seat at Head of the Class (Aug. 9)
Showing the Way is Worth the Wait for Wells (Aug. 18)

McGrane: It’s a Numbers Game for Aztec Running Backs
By Mick McGrane, GoAztecs.com Senior Writer (@MickOnTheMesa)

It is a program that has produced five 1,000-yard rushers in the past six seasons, a list that includes the leading rusher in NCAA history.

It is a team that collects running backs like rivers do rain, with backups stacked upon backups until the roster fairly weakens from the weight.

And still they come, running backs with high school resumes that scream of stardom and trumpet triumph. Running backs who’ve already staked their claim on the Mesa and running backs yet to arrive.

At last week’s annual Fan Fest, an event where many players hope to swap anonymity for the fortune that accompanies fame, three Aztec running backs combined for nearly 200 yards, standard fare for a team whose approach to football is about as subtle as a sledgehammer and only slightly less savage.

But for the foreseeable future, Keagun Williams, Chase Jasmin and Chance Bell, who rushed for 100, 60 and 33 yards, respectively, will spend time chasing the likes of Rashaad Penny and Juwan Washington, a feat demanding not only exceptional speed, but patience that would test the tolerance of Job.

Consider: Penny, whose average of 7.08 yards per carry ranks first in school history among those with at least 1,100 yards, will spend but one season as the Aztecs’ starting tailback. This despite needing just 24 yards in the season opener against UC Davis to crack the list of the top 20 rushers in SDSU history.

Yet as with Williams, Jasmin and Bell, Penny also encountered heavy traffic upon his arrival in 2014. There was Donnel Pumphrey, who exited SDSU last season as the leading rusher in NCAA history. There was Chase Price, who would rush for 1,700 yards in his final two seasons as Pumphrey’s sidekick and in 2015 give the Aztecs two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time in school history. Despite his career average of 5.0 yards per carry, Price never did become the starting tailback, first deferring to Adam Muema (2,852 career yards) and Walter Kazee before ultimately encountering the legend of Pumphrey.

And still they come. Depending on who inks with the Aztecs on Signing Day, they would be joining a running back corps that would include Washington, currently a sophomore, as well as Williams, Jasmin and Bell. Williams and Bell, who rushed for 2,070 and 4,525 yards, respectively, as prep players at Cedar Hill (Texas) and Burbank’s John Burroughs high schools, are true freshman. Jasmin, meanwhile, who concluded his career at Westlake High in Agoura Hills having rushed for 2,808 yards and 24 touchdowns, is a redshirt freshman.

Take a number.

“When they look at the past history here, my word to them is that if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then I’ll find some way to get you involved in the offense,” said associate head coach Jeff Horton, who also serves as offensive coordinator and the team’s running backs coach. “My goal as a coach, no matter who I have in there, is to make sure they give us a chance to win, whether you’re the so-called first back or the fourth back. But they need to understand what to do and be able to play the way we want them to play.

“In my seven years here, I’ve never heard one back say that he wanted the ball more or that he wanted to be the back. They’ve always embraced the way we play two or three guys. The young guys see that. They know that Pump wasn’t always the No. 1 guy and they know that it’s been the same for Rashaad and Juwan (Washington). They know how it’s going to operate. We’ve had very unselfish guys.”

Guys who have produced rushing numbers that stretch the senses. Guys who have arrived at SDSU with four stars and three stars and stars in their eyes. Guys who have taken advantage of a system that may be old school but whose graduates will be fully familiar with the demands of the NFL when they’re done.

San Diego State was once a quarterback factory, producing passers such as former Aztecs’ assistant Brian Sipe and Dennis Shaw, players who in the late 1960s and early ‘70s thrived under the high-flying offense orchestrated by Don Coryell, the winningest coach in school history. It was a trend that continued into the ‘80s with the likes of Todd Santos, SDSU’s all-time second-leading passer, and stretched into the ‘90s when Billy Blanton (No. 3 on the school’s career list) threw for a career 8,165 yards. As recently as 2011, the Aztecs were still pinning their hopes on quarterback play, when Ryan Lindley capped a four-year run that saw him become the leading passer in SDSU history (12,690 yards).

Enter Rocky Long, whose idea of fancy is a flair pass.

Not once since Long became the 15th head coach in SDSU history in 2011 have the Aztecs failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. They've had two backs surpass the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two seasons, with Pumphrey and Penny giving SDSU the distinction last season of becoming the first team in FBS history with both a 2,000- and 1,000-yard rusher. Only a season before, Pumphrey and Price became the first two players in SDSU history to surpass 1,000 yards in the same season.

Indeed, since Ronnie Hillman ascended the national stage in 2011 with a season that saw him rush for 1,711 yards and 19 touchdowns, Aztec players posting 1,000-yard seasons have combined for 12,092 yards and 121 touchdowns. They have averaged a collective 5.9 yards per carry.

While SDSU may not nationally be recognized as Tailback U, its coming fast in the final turn.

“When I talk to recruits, number one I tell them they’re going to a school where they’re going to run the ball,” Horton said. “There aren't many schools like us out there now unless you go to an option team. Number two, we run a pro-style offense, so they’re going to get developed that way for the next level. You’re going to be running downhill plays and not going sideways like they do in spread offenses. Three, there’s a tradition here now that if you come in and work hard we’ll develop you and give you the opportunity to become the best you can be. If you’re afraid of competition, then we’re probably not the school for you.”

It’s also probably not the school for you if you fear long lines. Heading into the final week of fall camp, the Aztecs have no fewer than seven running backs on the roster. Penny tops the latest depth chart, followed by Washington, Jasmin, senior Tyler Wormhoudt, junior Chad Woolsey, Bell and Williams. Of the final five players, Wormhoudt is the only one with game experience at running back (Woolsey logged two games on special teams last year before an injury sidelined him for the season). He has two career carries.

And despite the gaudy accomplishments of the newcomers hoping to begin pursuit of Pumphrey’s decorated deeds, only two players — Hillman and Lynell Hamilton — have become starters as true freshmen in the past 14 years.

“Even with (Pumphrey), when he was a freshman, I told him a couple days before our last scrimmage of (fall camp) that he was probably going to redshirt unless there was an injury,” Horton said. “Then, in the scrimmage, he busted out and started making plays. I kind of thought to myself, ‘Whoa, not so fast here.’

“But I think (starting a freshman) is a reach, just because of what we expect from them. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Ronnie Hillman obviously played a lot as a freshman. (Pumphrey) needed about four games to kind of get into the flow. He didn’t really start, but in our system, because we (alternate backs), he was really 1A (behind Adam Muema). Rashaad did a little bit during his freshman year, but I think it’s a tall order to come in and learn what we want them to do and how we want them to do it. And there’s also the physicality involved for somebody who’s just coming out of high school.”

“You always want the tough and physical guy,” Horton continued. “They have to have (those qualities) because of what we do. We’re also looking for guys who can make people miss, because you can’t block all of ‘em. We want guys who can turn a bad play into a good play.

“But then there’s the character part of it. I’m still a firm believer that character will get you through the tough times. It’s not always going to be like a hot knife going slicing through butter. There are always going to be times when you get knocked around a little bit or have a few bad plays. The character part of it comes in when you show you’re able to come back from that and keep pounding it in there.”

SDSU pounded its way to its best rushing total in school history last season, finishing seventh in the nation with 3,680 yards. Only once since Long began his tenure as head coach have the Aztecs not ranked among the country’s top 30 teams in rushing offense, jumping seven spots in 2016 after finishing 14th in 2015.

“I think (recruits) are very aware (of what we’ve done in the run game),” Horton said. “Their coaches have talked to them, they’ve seen us on TV and we have that reputation. It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to (sign) them, but it makes it easier to talk to them. We try to sell them on how they’ll be developed, and the opportunities they’ll get to run the ball as opposed to (playing in) other offenses. It’s something our guys take great pride in.”

And, in the end, the reason they still come.

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