Lighter, quicker 2018 top draft pick Rashaad Penny seeks to “be a pro, play at a different type of speed” for Seahawks in 2019
His rookie year humbled him.
His first football injury stymied him.
“It put me in a hole,” he says now.
So Rashaad Penny sought out a Hall of Famer to learn how to become a pro.
This year, if the Seahawks get the version of Penny they made their first-round draft choice in 2018 instead of the injured, heavy, frustrated rookie running back they had last season, they should thank Marshall Faulk.
Penny had 419 yards, two touchdowns and one broken finger that made him “hit a wall” in his rookie season. Days after it ended, with the playoff loss at Dallas Jan. 5, Penny reached out to Faulk through the agency that represents them both.
The former NFL running back and Super Bowl champion with the Rams and Colts played college football where Penny did: San Diego State. This offseason when Penny went back to San Diego, where Faulk lives, he met with Faulk each Monday and Wednesday, for a couple hours.
Penny said he brings his Seahawks playbook to his sessions with Faulk.
“I have a mentor in Marshall Faulk,” Penny said Thursday at the end of Seattle’s 10th and final practice of offseason organized team activities practices. “He knows everything, from what the offensive line is doing, to receivers, and just learning different reads and things.
“It’s just the little things. I send him the playbook, and he shows me what to look for. We also watch videos on FaceTime (on their mobile phones).
“I’m just trying to learn the dynamics of being more than a pro... I’ve probably been doing that since the start of January. That’s when I started taking this more serious, when I began trying to put another notch in my learning.”
Penny learned the hard way what life as rookie was like in the NFL, even one that was drafted in the first round. Two weeks into his first Seahawks preseason the nation’s leading rusher at San Diego State in 2017 broke his index finger in practice.
Penny had surgery that inserted a screw in his finger in August. He returned three weeks later, in time to play in the season opener at Denver, but had just 8 yards on seven carries in Seattle’s loss to the Broncos. He had just 30 yards on 10 carries the following week at Chicago, when the Seahawks dropped to 0-2.
By week five he was out of the offense, playing on special teams only. Chris Carson, the 2017 seventh-round pick, was the Seahawks’ headlining back by then, on his way to an 1,110-yard rushing season.
Penny was a special-teams-only participant in two out of three games during October. He gained more than 65 yards rushing in just one game, his 108-yard game in the five-point loss at the eventual NFC-champion Rams in November. He had that big game in L.A., near his hometown of Norwalk, Calif.
Penny said after that game that, yes, more inactivity after finally producing got in his head a little bit.
“Definitely. When you don’t get that many opportunities, you know, you look going in like, ‘Man, I can’t do any of these things because I just need the opportunity to,’” Penny said on an exit ramp outside the the visitors’ locker room at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Nov. 11.
But then four days later he gained just 46 yards in a home win over Green Bay.
Then, 4 yards on four rushes in a victory at Carolina. A knee injury that cost him the games at San Francisco and the playoff-clinching victory over Kansas City in December. His final regular-season game upon his return, Dec. 30 against Arizona: 6 yards, four carries.
The Seahawks didn’t make Penny the third running back they’ve ever drafted in the first round, after Curt Warner and Shaun Alexander, for him to have four games with single-digit rushing yards for what was the league’s top rushing offense last season.
Coach Pete Carroll said during the 2018 season Penny didn’t quite know how to handle the setback of the broken finger and time lost at the end of last preseason, then nagging injuries throughout the regular season, that it took a toll on the rookie mentally.
Thursday, Penny agreed with that.
“It was definitely frustrating,” he said. “Definitely, you have a finger issue, as a running back you need all hands and fingers. It is frustrating, and it was frustrating as a rookie. I didn’t know how to take it. I’d never been hurt playing football, in my life. So when that happened, I just hit a wall...
“I’m just now learning how to be a pro. And I think that’s a big step for your second year,” Penny said. “Just playing at a different type of speed (than) I played at last year.”
Now, Carson is watching instead of participating. He had knee surgery this offseason. It’s no sure thing Carson will be ready when training camp begins in seven weeks.
That’s given Penny a chance as the Seahawks’ top running back with Russell Wilson.
And Penny has been faster and more dynamic, including in catching passes. That’s something else he rarely did at the back of San Diego’s State’s I formation while rushing for 2,400 yards his final season with the Aztecs.
Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer remarked this week how impressive Penny has been turning his body and making cuts, making linebackers miss, immediately after catches in OTAs.
Why is Penny faster? Because there is now less of him to run.
He says part of him being a better pro in 2019 including him losing 12 pounds since last season. During it Carroll voiced displeasure with Penny being, the coach said, 237 pounds (the team listed him inaccurately at 220 pounds last year).
Penny says he’s now under 230, though the Seahawks still list him at 220. He credits a new nutritionist and two healthier meals each day, plus offseason workouts and Faulk’s guidance.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” he said.
“I’m hoping to stay at this weight, keep playing where I’m at right now. ... It’s just my different pace of speed... It’s playing at a faster pace. Just trying to help the team.”
He believes he got “too anxious” last year, set back by the finger injury and weeks away just as his first NFL season was beginning, then the persistent injuries as fall became winter.
“Just be more patient,” he said when asked how he’s changing his approach to 2019.
“You get anxious; over-excited. You have high expectations, being a first-rounder. But at the end of the day it’s all about coming in and doing what’s at hand. You know, we have a great running back in Chris Carson. So I try to take little details from him, try to be his best friend.
“We are trying to create something that hasn’t been done here.”
He likely means big picture, multiple Super Bowl championships.
But for now, the Seahawks want Penny to partner with Carson in an almost 1-and-1A arrangement in the running game Seattle will again feature this year. The coaches would rather not run Carson 30-plus times as they did last season to get their first win, in week three against Dallas.
Carson’s punishing, run-you-over style has gotten him injured in every one of his seasons back to junior college. He missed two games last season with a hip issue.
That durability concern is why the Seahawks drafted Penny even though they had more pressing needs such as defensive backs, pass rushers and run-stopping defensive linemen.
Penny believes he’s being a better professional this year by “coming in early, getting treatment whenever my body is sore, doing all the little things. Focusing on other positions and techniques, knowing what they do, instead of just knowing mine.”
He feels far better equipped, and far more mature, to fulfill those high expectations this year.
“I’m glad I’ve grown up,” Penny said. “These past months, this offseason, I started treating everything seriously, treating my body right, and just doing the little things. Also, what helped me, I think, is losing all that extra weight.
“Now, I’m healthier. I feel better. I don’t have any nagging injuries.
“I’m at my best.”