SDSU-proud Penny has created situational niche with rising Seahawks
Rashaad Penny hung in there, never fumbling the football, not letting a bumpy start to his NFL career take him down.
Weathering headwinds as a top draftee who wasn’t producing, did Penny draw upon mental toughness that he said he developed at San Diego State?
Who knows — but Penny has come out the other side.
Credit not only the rookie running back but Seahawks coaches and teammates for evolving a role.
Penny has become a dangerous situational back, ripping opponents for 7.2 yards per carry in the past four games.
Eight of the 31 rushes have netted 12-plus yards, including touchdown runs of 18 and 20 yards.
“He’s had some really good games,” coordinator Brian Schottenheimer told reporters last week.
For most of the season’s first half, Penny was a distant No. 3 in Seattle’s deep rotation but he nailed one fundamental: He never fumbled through some 60 touches, including kickoffs.
NFL defenders are wolves, the football a chicken in a rookie’s hands. San Diegans will recall that Chargers Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson had eight fumbles as a rookie, and that first-round draftees Ryan Mathews and Melvin Gordon fumbled their way to the bench as rookies.
Penny was unable to make big plays but made sure the main thing was the same thing. He secured the football.
Along the way, Seahawks coaches and he figured out a few things.
Against the Rams four games ago, with No. 1 back Chris Carson inactive due to injury, Penny rotated with Mike Davis and had rushes of 18, 24 and 38 yards en route to 108 yards in just 12 pops.
Penny hit the Packers for 30 and 12 yards four days later, before an ankle injury sidelined him.
The Seahawks leaned on Russell Wilson’s passing to win the next game against the stout Panthers and returned to form last week, rolling over the 49ers and running for 100-plus yards for the ninth time in 10 games.
Penny hit the Niners for gains of 15, 19 and 20 yards.
Why the surge?
Foremost, the Seahawks are committed to the run, making them better at it, but they also have an opportunistic passer in Wilson who’ll punish defenses that overplay the run.
Penny was drafted 27th mostly because he’s both big and fast, and his speed is showing up more often. He’s getting an outside angle, or running away after finding an inside lane.
He got outside for all three big gains last week, and the 18-yard TD run against the Rams.
Yet it’s very much a collaborative effort — varied and creative run designs, effective blockers throughout the offense, Wilson’s hybrid game, and a deep running-back group still headed by Carson, who’ll hurdle or run over defenders.
Some geeky football minutiae: Penny can line up very deep — nine yards back — and not have that be overly risky. He does this seldom but it’s a useful tool that creates different angles and pace. From the deep set last week, Penny stepped right and then broke left and took a pitch 20 yards untouched for the TD. He took pitches for both other big gains, too, but from a different depth. Many other nuances were at work.
A finger fracture that required surgery limited Penny throughout August.
Back then, Penny said he was grateful for the mental toughness he developed under Aztecs coaches.
“If you’re gonna play for Coach (Rocky) Long," said Aztecs coordinator Jeff Horton when told of the comment, “one thing you’re gonna be is tough and physical. You’re gonna be able to take a butt-chewing, and you’re going to know how to compete.”
While gritty footballers are more apt to win games, Horton said a longer view is at work. “We tell them: These things are going to carry over for the rest of your life. We think that it’s a disservice to the people out there, if you treat ‘em with gold gloves all the time, or pamper them. We try to prepare them for the real world.”
In one respect it’s good that Penny isn’t all true to dear old alma mater.
Where the 2018 Aztecs team started fast but faded, Penny has done the inverse and is up to 5.1 yards per carry on the season, though in only 72 rushes. And despite an 0-2 start, the Seahawks (7-5) hold the NFC’s top wild-card spot going toward Monday’s home game against the Vikings (6-5-1).