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Monday, December 10, 2018

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SDSU running back Rashaad Penny Penny rushed for 100 or more yards in five games in 2016. (Photo: Ernie Anderson) SDSU running back Rashaad Penny Penny rushed for 100 or more yards in five games in 2016. (Photo: Ernie Anderson)

Lucky Penny

After years as the No. 2 running back, Rashaad Penny is ready to step up and lead the Aztecs.
By Doug Williams

“I’m pretty excited for it. I’ve just been waiting my turn.”

This story appears in the summer 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

For most of his youth, Rashaad Penny played baseball, not football. He didn’t put on a helmet and pads until his freshman year of high school.

“I was scared of contact,” he said.

Though he’s long since shed that fear, there are times when the San Diego State University running back still appears to be running for his life with the football in his hands. He’s a 5-foot-11, 220-pound rocket in red and black. Five times he’s returned kickoffs for touchdowns, three times from 100 yards or more. He had three touchdown runs of 70 or more yards in 2016. At times, he’s gone untouched.

“He has great vision and anticipation,” said Jeff Horton, SDSU’s associate head coach/offensive coordinator, who also oversees the running back squad. “When he sees something, he can really accelerate. Nobody can catch him when he sees it and hits it.”

Summer 2017 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
Summer 2017 Cover of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University
As a junior last year, Penny was prodigious, rushing for 1,018 yards. As a runner, receiver and returner, he scored 16 touchdowns and gained nearly 1,900 yards.

Yet for all his success, Penny played his first three seasons in the shadow of Donnel Pumphrey. At a school known for great running backs—think Marshall Faulk, Larry Ned, Ronnie Hillman and Adam Muema—Pumphrey is No. 1. After all, he’s major college football’s all-time rushing leader.

In his final season, Penny will finally step into the spotlight, starting for a program that is coming off back-to-back 11-3 seasons and bowl victories. He knows he’ll have to live up to expectations.

“I’m pretty excited for it,” Penny said. “I’ve just been waiting my turn.”

To Penny, the waiting game has been a blessing. He came to SDSU after having video game–like stats at Norwalk High School (51 touchdowns as a senior), yet hardly played his first year. So instead he studied. Penny watched and absorbed, his confidence growing as his role increased over the years. He learned to better read defenses. He was inspired by Pumphrey’s toughness. And he stayed upbeat, with a smile and a positive outlook.

“I’ve never seen him down,” said Horton.

Now that he’s the featured back, he’ll put what he learned from Pumphrey into practice.

“How small he is, he’s never going to give up,” Penny said of Pumphrey. “He’s always going to keep fighting at the end of a play, and I learned that from him. Just to run through anybody who’s wearing a different color jersey.”

This summer, Pumphrey, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, has kept in touch.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want you to be like me, I want you to be better than me,’” Penny said.

Horton also is confident Penny will excel.

“To me, he was a starting running back last year,” he said. “Donnel was 1A and Rashaad was 1B. You rush for over 1,000 yards, you’re not considered a backup.”

Penny rushed for 100 or more yards in five games in 2016, including 117 in the Mountain West Conference championship win over Wyoming. Against Nevada, he rushed for 208 yards.

Plus, there are his game-changing kickoff returns. He had one 100-yarder in a win over Cal last season, and another to open a Hawaii Bowl victory over Cincinnati in 2015. The past two seasons he was named the MW Special Teams Player of the Year.

He’s just two shy of the major college career record for touchdown returns. And he still wants to return kicks in 2017, even though he’s finally the 1A back.

“A lot of people say, ‘You need to take a break,’” he said. “No, it’s my senior year. I want to win. We want to win. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”