Following his surprise selection in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny flashed the speed and dynamic play-making ability the organization expected out of him during offseason activities and the start of his first training camp last August.
However, injuries hindered Penny’s progress as a rookie. First, he suffered a broken finger during camp that required surgery and cost him Seattle’s final three preseason games. Then, a knee issue forced him to sit out two games toward the end of the regular season.
Dealing with injuries for the first time in his entire playing career dating back to high school, a frustrated Penny didn’t know how to respond to the adversity and folded under the expectations of being a first-round pick.
"I didn't know how to take it. I've never been hurt playing football in my life, so when that happened, I just hit a wall.” Penny said following the conclusion of Seattle’s final OTA session. “I'm glad that I've grown up. Over these past months and this offseason, I've just started taking everything seriously by treating my body right and doing the little things.”
After producing only 419 rushing yards and two touchdowns as a rookie playing behind Chris Carson and Mike Davis, Penny went back to the drawing board and fine-tuned his focus on the details.
Admitting he still needed to learn how to become a pro, Penny hired a nutritionist to help him slim down below 230 pounds after battling weight problems early in his rookie season. He also sought out help from Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, meeting up with the fellow San Diego State alum twice a week starting in January while also exchanging face time conversations and discussing his playbook.
His goals? Lighter on his feet and with a sharper understanding of what his teammates around him are doing each play, Penny believes playing at a different speed than a year ago will make all the difference entering his second season.
“I’m just trying to do all the little things right.” Penny stated. “I think that was the big thing with me last year, just trying to figure out what’s the next play instead of focusing on the play that’s happening. Just doing the little things right, playing at a faster pace, and just trying to help this team win.”
So far, his plan seems to be coming to fruition as he envisioned it would.
With Carson sidelined recovering from knee surgery, Penny has been the primary beneficiary of his absence, receiving the bulk of Seattle’s reps in the backfield during OTA practices. He’s capitalized on the extended play time, as offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has taken notice of the maturing runner “attacking” practice recently.
“Last year, he didn’t know what he didn’t know.” Schottenheimer said. “Now, he’s got some leadership ability, he’s getting a ton of reps because obviously Chris is out, but it’s been fun to watch him grow. The talent’s there, we all know that. It’s just him putting together consecutive days in a row and I think he’s done that the last couple weeks.”
What’s stood out most to Schottenheimer thus far? After catching only nine passes for 75 yards during his rookie season, Penny has taken a major leap forward as a route runner.
One play from OTAs in particular caught Schottenheimer’s eye.
“We had a little choice route that he ran, a little option route, and he ran a great route. Set up the linebacker, the linebacker kinda overplayed him, he cross faced him. You don’t really see guys that big who can move like that, so there’s really nothing that he can’t do.”
With Carson still expected to start, Penny could create a far more significant role for himself in Seattle’s offense by simply being a reliable weapon as a receiver and potentially being the team's primary third down back.
Adding in improved conditioning as well as expanded knowledge of the game, it’s easy to see why Penny believes he’s put himself in a prime position for a breakthrough season with the Seahawks. Fully healthy and feeling the best he ever has, he’s looking forward to teaming up with Carson to form the league’s best backfield duo.
"At the end of the day, it's all about coming in and doing what's at hand. We have a great running back in Chris Carson, so I try to take little details from him, try to be his best friend, and just try to create something that hasn't been done here."