RENTON -- The Seahawks certainly didn't envision first-round pick Rashaad Penny being a third-string option when they selected him with the 27th overall pick of the NFL Draft this spring, but that hasn't dampened their hopes for the future for their rookie running back.
Penny, the 2017 Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year at San Diego State, was the second running back off the board behind Penn State's Saquon Barkley in April. But while Barkley, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Royce Freeman and Nyheim Hines are heavily involved with their teams, Penny has only had limited opportunities as he's been buried behind Chris Carson and Mike Davis on Seattle's depth chart.
At the midway point of Penny's rookie season, he's gained just 146 yards on 42 carries for the Seahawks while also catching nine passes for 75 yards out of the backfield.
"He needs to just be more involved," head coach Pete Carroll said on Wednesday in regards to what Penny needs to do to get more chances. "I think he just needs to keep getting attempts and get out there and play. Just get accustomed to everything that's going on around him. ... He's got a lot to offer us that we know of and so it's just going to be a matter of time."
The Seahawks and Penny point to the broken finger Penny sustained in training camp as one thing that set back his early development. Penny missed the final three preseason games and couldn't practice for several weeks as recovered from surgery in mid-August. While the injury wasn't a difficult one to recover from physically, it cost Penny a number of practices, games and reps to adapt to the new aspects of playing in the NFL.
"That kind of got me down because that’s where I really hit rock bottom," Penny said on Thursday. "(It) really messed me up from being what I thought could be a great rookie season to me just now making it as a learning (experience)."
Penny had to get used to playing with a quarterback in the shotgun. During his time at San Diego State, the majority of the Aztecs offense came with the quarterback under center and Penny eight yards deep in the backfield, usually in I-formation with a fullback leading the way. Pull up one of Penny's college highlight reels on YouTube and it's clear just how many of his big plays came out of I-formation.
In shotgun, Penny only sets five yards behind the line of scrimmage and the reads come at a faster pace.
"Everything was all out of the I-formation," Penny said. "I hardly did anything out of shotgun. That’s why it’s a learning experience. I never took inside zone or wide zone in shotgun but that’s no excuse. The same plays, just got to read everything right."
That's where the lost practice time in August comes into play. The lost chances to see the reads, speed up his vision and adjust to the pro game set him back.
"He showed us a bunch of juice and spark before he got hurt and then the month that he missed in there seemed to set us back a little bit," Carroll said. "We were so close to the season that it really wasn't the time to go back to camp and develop him. He had to just kind of jump in with us and it took him a while to get back going again."
In essence, Penny was trying to start running on a treadmill moving at full speed when the regular season began.
"Physically I thought I was there, but mentally… you play a first preseason game and you’re like ‘OK, everything is probably going to be the same’ and then when you get to the opener, everything is moving faster than in the preseason," Penny said.
Running backs coach Chad Morton said that he believes Penny can do everything they ask of him from any formation or alignment, but that it was an adjustment Penny had to make.
"I think he can do it all," Morton said. "Whether it’s behind the quarterback, on the side of the quarterback, whatever, I think he’s just still a good runner, good natural runner. It’s not something he was accustomed to in college but that’s why you need him out there in practice, so all that time he missed was a lot of gun runs that he couldn’t have been practicing with and practicing on."
Penny certainly hasn't gotten many chances in games this season. Carson has rushed for 497 yards and two touchdowns in seven games this season for Seattle. Meanwhile, Davis has added 288 yards and three touchdowns as a complement to Carson. Carson is averaging 4.5 yards per carry with Davis averaging 4.3 yards per carry over the first half of the season.
Penny has managed just 3.5 yards per carry on his 42 attempts.
However, Penny says he now feels much more comfortable than he did at the beginning of the season. He cited the team's Week Four game against the Arizona Cardinals as a turning point when he gained 49 yards on nine carries. Penny feels most comfortable when he can get into a rhythm with the offense. His two most productive games so far this season came against Arizona, when Carson didn't play due to an injury, and against the Oakland Raiders when he was able to play almost the entire fourth quarter due to a big lead.
"Now it’s starting to come natural," he said. "That’s what I’m saying, when you get opportunities and get more opportunities, you start to get the feel of the game. I take what I get whenever they need me and that’s what I’m doing, but I feel like as I grow and as they see me doing more and more, I think I’ll be getting more chances.”
But the current reality is Penny is still stuck in a bit role for the time being. He won't get the chance to get a large number of carries week in and week out.
"I don’t know if he’s going to get that right now and probably won’t so he’s just has to make the most of his opportunities," Morton said.
Penny could see a bigger role this week if Carson is unable to play due to a hip injury. Carson has been unable to practice the first two days of the week and his status for Sunday's game in Los Angeles is in doubt. Penny, who grew up about 10 minutes away from the L.A. Coliseum, would be in line for more chances this week if Carson isn't available.
"He’s getting better every day," Morton said. "He’s still progressing. He’s getting smarter. He’s doing things right and he’s paying attention to detail, the little things, and that’s what we’re looking for."
Penny is being patient and waiting for his chances to come along. He had to bide his time at San Diego State before getting his chance to play and he's treating his rookie year with the Seahawks in much the same way.
“I’m a young guy," he said. "There’s so many other young guys in the league getting the opportunity to be a guy for their team. I’m just sitting back, learning, watching these guys runs and whenever my name is called, that’s when I’ll try to make the best of what I can do.”
Photo Credit: SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 04: Rashaad Penny #20 of the Seattle Seahawks runs with the ball while being chased by Uchenna Nwosu #42 of the Los Angeles Chargers in the first quarter at CenturyLink Field on November 04, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)