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David Ramsey: Denver Broncos should draft San Diego State's Rashaad Penny and defy fear of Mountain West

April 25, 2018 Updated: April 26, 2018 at 3:24 pm
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San Diego State's Rashaad Penny (20) runs with the ball as Arizona State's J'Marcus Rhodes, left, and Alani Latu, right, move in to make the tackle as San Diego State's David Wells (88) tries to block Rhodes during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Rashaad Penny is not Ronnie Hillman.

There. I said it, and I feel better already.

Whenever I suggest the Bronco select Penny, a San Diego State mega-star running back, in Thursday’s draft, the listener grimaces and asks, “Isn’t he just another Ronnie Hillman?”

No, he’s not. Hillman – a 2010-2011 star at San Diego State - was listed at 5-foot-9 (no way) and 195 pounds (probably not), and his smallish frame was not built for NFL punishment. Penny is a legit 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, and he’s ready to attack the hulking, sinister tacklers of the NFL.

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Just ask Air Force linebacker Grant Ross. On Sept. 23, Ross and the Falcons delivered a noble performance against Penny and San Diego State’s mighty rushing offense. Air Force slowed Penny for most of the game, but they couldn’t survive his onslaught.

In the first quarter, the Aztecs handed the ball to Penny at the 3-yard line, and Ross stood before No. 20 and the end zone. Ross had no chance. Penny, with a quick burst to full power, ran over Ross at the goal line.

And Penny is similar to Hillman in this way:

He’s really fast.

In the fourth quarter, with Air Force was clinging to a three-point lead and the chance for minor upset, Penny headed into the heart of the Falcon defense, but found it packed with bodies. The field was soaked after a night of monsoon-like rain, but Penny quickly danced to the outside and bolted 53 yards to the game-winning touchdown.

Hillman was not a bust as a Bronco draft pick, but he wasn’t a complete success, either. A 2012 third-round pick, he gained 1,655 yards, including a team-high 863 yards for the 2014 Super Bowl champs, and scored 18 touchdowns in four seasons. But he struggled with blocking and fumbling. (He collected 16 fumbles in 453 carries.)

His brief career added fuel to the falsehood that Mountain West players are not prepared sufficiently for the terrors of the NFL. This falsehood has serious legs. While recently listening to a national radio talk show, I heard commentators describing Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen as if he had competed in a mildly respectable junior high league. The Mountain West, in their minds, was a serious stain on Allen’s credentials.

Let’s look at the numbers:

Penny rampaged to a best-in-the-nation 2,248 yards in 2017, and the temptation is to deflate those numbers because many were earned against Mountain West tacklers.

The temptation is phony. Consider Penny’s numbers against Stanford and Arizona State, teams that compete in the oh-so mighty Pac-12. Penny went on an ultra-rampage in those two games, collecting 391 yards on 40 carries, or 9.8 per carry. Against superior competition, his numbers went up, not down. (Stanford and Arizona State combined to win 13 of 18 Pac-12 games in 2017, but they were 0-2 vs. Penny and SDSU.)

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun always is eager to praise opposing players, but sometimes he strays into truth.

“Great, great speed,” Calhoun said, describing Penny, “He can wiggle, make people miss. Truly, he is everything you could ever want in a running back.”

Still doubtful? Take a look at Kareem Hunt, who collected huge numbers at Toledo. Hunt was considered a risk when selected in 2017’s third round by the Chiefs, and all he did is collect 1,782 yards rushing and receiving in his rookie season. Penny, like Hunt, is poised to become another major surprise from a mid-major school.

The Broncos need a running back, or two, after the dismissal of C.J. Anderson and his pending $4.5 million contract. Penn State behemoth Saquon Barkley probably won’t be available by the time the Broncos pick at No. 5 in the first round.

Penny probably will be available for Broncos pick at No. 40 in the second round. He’s big, powerful, determined, imaginative, durable, swift, agile and hostile. He’s blessed with sensational feet. At times, he resembles a dancer as he skips away from tacklers.

And, remember, he’s not Ronnie Hillman.

  

               

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