It is hard not to venture into hyperbole when describing Penny, who simply led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in 2017 - his first season as the Aztecs' full-time running back.
He was a dominant high school player, rushing for 2,504 yards and 41 touchdowns in his senior season alone and earning interest from high profile programs like Alabama, Notre Dame and Washington - but was relegated to kick return and backup duty most of his career with San Diego State already featuring another future pro in Donnel Pumphrey, who left the Aztecs as college football's all-time leading rusher with 6,405 career rushing yards.
Perhaps because his 5-foot-9, 180 pound predecessor - who the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to draft in the fourth round last spring - was so successful, Penny has not received the national attention that his production and talent deserve. He certainly made the most of his opportunities, taking the first of his two carries as a true freshman for 21 yards and averaging a cool 25 yards as the team's primary kick returner, good for second in the Mountain West Conference.
With Pumphrey earning the bulk of the carries, Penny quietly averaged six yards per carry as a sophomore, rushing for 368 yards and four touchdowns while also chipping in eight receptions for another 120 yard and a score. The vision, elusiveness and breakaway speed which soon would make him the country's most successful runner, however, was best exhibited early on as a kick returner, where Penny earned All-American honors and was the first Aztec to ever be voted the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 33.5 yards per attempt and returning three kickoffs back for touchdowns (97, 100 and 100 yards), both tied for second in all of college football.
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long could do no wrong with his backs in 2016 with Pumphrey overtaking former Wisconsin great Ron Dayne as the all-time leading rusher in college football with 2,133 yards (on 349 carries) and Penny seeing his attempts doubled from his sophomore season, averaging a team-high 7.5 yards per tote and gashing defenses for 1,018 yards and 11 scores on just 136 carries. His big plays continued as a receiver and returner, with 15 grabs in 2016 for a career-high 224 receiving yards and three touchdowns and repeating as the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year with two more long returns for scores (100, 93) against California and Wyoming, respectively.
With Pumphrey off to fly with the Eagles, Penny finally had his chance to shine in 2017. He wasted little time in proving easy money, rushing for 197 yards and two scores in a season-opening warmup against UC-Davis before leading the Aztecs to impressive wins over Pac-12 foes Arizona State and Stanford with totals of 216 and 175 rushing yards and a score in each game, respectively. Penny was especially flashy on the road against the Sun Devils, silencing the crowd with a career-long 95 yard touchdown run from scrimmage. He proved the proverbial bell-cow with career-highs in rushing attempts (32) and receptions (five for 31 yards) in a grinding 20-17 win over Stanford. Penny was especially dominant down the stretch, rushing for at least 200 yards and multiple touchdowns in the final five games of the year against Hawaii (30 rushes for 253 yards and two touchdowns), San Jose State (20-234-3), Nevada (24-222-2), New Mexico (22-203-2) and capping his career against Army in the Armed Forces Bowl (14-221-4). If there was any concern by Long or the SDSU staff of taking the shine off Penny by overloading him, it didn't take away from his kick return attempts with the senior runner again leading the Aztecs with 521 yards on 17 attempts with two more touchdowns. Why didn't the Aztecs try him at punt returner, you might be thinking? They did in 2017 with Penny returning one of his two attempts 70 yards for another score (Nevada).
While critics will point out that the relative lack of NFL prospects on the Mountain West defenses Penny faced, his statistics and consistency as a runner, receiver and returner are undeniable. Penny registered a run of at least 21 yards in all 13 games in 2017 and gains of at least 50 yards in eight of them - including touchdowns runs of 81 yards (Army), 82 yards (San Jose State) and 95 yards (Arizona State). He returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns over his career, including at least two each of the past three seasons. He averaged 30.2 yards per return over 81 attempts and four years as a starter.
Perhaps best of all, because Penny was largely relegated to backup status behind Pumphrey, he still should have plenty of tread left on the tires. Penny leaves San Diego State as a four-year difference-maker despite a relatively low 613 career touches, less than many of the other top senior running backs, including Oregon's Royce Freeman (1,026), as well as Georgia's Nick Chubb (756) and Sony Michel (629), even prior to the Rose Bowl.
A three-time letter-winner at Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Calif. ... Rushed for 2,504 yards and 41 touchdowns on 216 carries as a senior ... Also caught 21 passes for 665 yards and 10 touchdowns ... Over his career, amassed 5,124 rushing yards on 496 carries (10.33 avg.) ... Scored 103 touchdowns, including 80 on the ground ... Made 68 tackles on defense as a senior and 90 overall ... Was named the Suburban League MVP as a senior, while earning first-team all-Suburban League honors his final three years ... Named first-team all-state ... Received three stars from Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPN.com and 247sports.com ... Picked SDSU over offers from Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State and Utah State ... Also drew interest from Alabama, Notre …
Possesses an ideal frame for the position with a compact, powerful build and a muscular lower half Quick to the hole, showing excellent vision and anticipation to find creases (including cutback lanes) as well as the smooth acceleration to gobble up yardage quickly with legitimate breakaway speed. Good flexibility through his core and hips to "dead-leg" defenders, leaning left and right to make it difficult to for opponents to get a direct shot on him. Strong lateral cuts to elude and doesn't need to slow down to make them. Trustworthy with the ball in his hands, showing good judgement as to when to lower his shoulder and scrap for what he can and when to bounce things outside - rarely running himself into trouble by getting too greedy or under-estimating opponents... Doesn't shy from contact, lowering his shoulder and keeping his legs churning, often spinning through it to break tackles. Finishes his runs, showing the competitiveness and toughness to be a bell-cow, as well as a naturally low center of gravity and balance which help him fall forward, picking up the "dirty yards." Trusted ball-skills as a four-year starting kick returner with 41 career receptions. Soft hands and good concentration to quickly latch onto the ball, showing the ability to track over his shoulder. Split out wide as a receiver, at times, showing the burst and body control to shake free. Excellent ball security with just three fumbles (two lost - UNLV, Fresno State) in 327 combined rushing/receiving/return attempts in 2017... -- Rob Rang 12/29/2017
Average level of competition and played in a run-first offense that also helped his predecessor dominate... Is not a physically imposing back with rare size... More smooth than sudden to and through the hole... Rarely asked to run complicated routes, even when split out wide. Willing in pass protection but needs to do a better job of bending his knees and initiating the contact with the rusher, rather than absorbing the blow and playing the role of the nail meeting the hammer. Only three fumbles in 2017 but does not always protect the ball with two hands and occasionally sneaks a peek at the defense before securing the pitch... - Rob Rang 12/29/2017
COMPARES TO: Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, Patriots/Jets - It is always a presumptuous to compare a college prospect to a legend but Penny possesses a similar frame, vision, versatility and blue-collar style as the 5-11, 210 pound Martin, who made an immediate impression in his first season as the starter in New England, leading the AFC in rushing yards and earned the yellow jacket largely based on his consistency, including rushing for over 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL.
IN OUR VIEW:Despite leading the country in rushing, Penny was inexplicably not among the finalists for the Heisman and Doak Walker (nation's top running back) Awards, an indictment, frankly, on the voting for each. Don't expect scouts to care. The prototypically-built Penny is a contender to be at least the first senior running back off the board and perhaps second at the position overall behind consensus Penn State's …