Vandals set to have crowded backfield once again
Thunderstorms are something the Idaho football team is all too familiar with.
Last season, the inclement weather forced Idaho’s game at Florida to be cancelled and delayed the following week’s game at Louisiana-Monroe.
While the weather might have put a damper on things last season, thunder and lightning has an all-new meaning for a pair of Vandal running backs.
“They say me and him are like lightning and thunder,” said sophomore running back Aaron Duckworth when asked to describe him and senior Elijhaa Penny.
The description fits, too. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Penny and his punishing style of running act as thunder, while Duckworth and his speed act as the lightning.
“We go hand in hand,” Penny said. “Me, running through the middle, getting the tough yards in between the tackles. Then he comes in, bring his speed into the game and you know, make big plays.”
When Penny arrived as a junior college transfer last summer, he had two seniors — Jerrel Brown and Kris Olugbode — ahead of him on the depth chart. As the season progressed, however, Penny picked up steam and became the Vandals’ go-to back — especially in the red zone.
The former Cerritos College running back was the Vandals’ leading rusher last season as he racked up 589 yards and 12 touchdowns on 139 carries.
Throughout the season, Idaho coach Paul Petrino would always comment on Penny’s weight. He said the big back needed to drop some pounds in order to become more effective, and Penny listened.
“I lost 20 pounds over the winter,” Penny said. “That was my main focus this offseason, was to just lose weight. I feel way better and I’m not as tired as I was last year.”
After playing at around 250 pounds in 2014, Penny said he now weighs around 230 pounds.
“He wants to be an every-down back,” running backs coach Jason Shumaker said. “To do that, he had to lose a little bit of weight, and hopefully that’s going to help with his explosiveness, quickness and ability to make bigger plays.”
Shumaker said the staff doesn’t have a set number of carries they envision Penny to have on a game-to-game basis.
“I talked to him a lot about, you know, maybe 25 carries,” Shumaker said. “Which is a big number for any running back in any offense. If we’re giving him that many carries, then we’re generally probably in a pretty good chance to win.”
Duckworth is the likely candidate to receive most of the remaining carries. As a freshman last season, the 5-foot-8, 208-pound back rushed for 88 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries.
“The more reps he can get, the better off he’s going to be,” Shumaker said of Duckworth. “He’s really improving, he’s working hard, he’s got good explosiveness, he’s one of the quicker guys on our team.”
Shumaker said Duckworth and Penny should develop into a formidable two-back tandem, but the other backs shouldn’t be overlooked.
With a build and running style similar to Penny, redshirt freshman Isaiah Saunders rushed for 78 yards on 17 carries in the Vandals’ last scrimmage.
Not yet with the team, but joining the group of backs this summer are three incoming freshmen — Denzal Brantley, Calvary Pugh and Jack Bamis.
In his signing day press conference, Petrino said Brantley won’t be redshirted and will find his way onto the field one way or another. As a senior, the 6-foot-1, 203-pound back out of California’s Los Alamitos High School, earned Sunset League MVP honors as he rushed for 1,036 yards and 10 touchdowns on 148 carries.
“He’s a big, tall, strong kid, and we’re excited to see him,” Shumaker said. “He’ll have a chance … but all three of them really have a chance to come in and compete and contribute and we’re excited about them.”
The Vandals handed the ball off to five different players last season, so the coaching staff is no stranger to handling a crowded backfield.
Korbin McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org