FAB 4. The Bucs Must Reload At RB
If you read my SR’s Fab 5 and my pre-draft coverage last year on PewterReport.com you know that I am an unabashed fan of running back Kareem Hunt. I followed his career at Toledo where he never lost a fumble despite gaining 5,500 yards from scrimmage (4,945 rushing, 555 receiving) and scored 45 touchdowns, and wrote about him often.
I wasn’t the only one who loved Hunt, who was PewterReport.com’s Bucs’ Best Bet at running back for Tampa Bay in our 2017 draft preview. The Bucs did, too. They interviewed him at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine, and sent running backs coach Tim Spencer to Toledo to privately work Hunt out.
Hunt was my favorite running back in this past year’s draft. Not Leonard Fournette. Not Dalvin Cook. Not Christian McCaffrey – although he was a close second. I loved his tackle-breaking ability, his ball security and his production as a runner and a receiver.
When I spoke with Hunt’s agent prior to the draft he told me he would be shocked if the Bucs didn’t draft him because they had shown the most interest in his client. Tampa Bay was surprised when the third round came and Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin was still on the board. Bucs general manager Jason Licht and his team of scouts had Godwin rated as a second-round pick and slightly ahead of Hunt, which was why he was the pick instead of the former Rocket.
The Bucs have high expectations for Godwin and see him as a future starter in the NFL. I too believe Tampa Bay got a steal with Godwin and expect him to make an early impact over the next year or two.
But I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been when I saw Hunt, who was drafted two spots later in the third round by Kansas City, ravage the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the 2017 season opener at Foxboro. Despite fumbling on his first carry, Hunt rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown and had 95 receiving yards, including a 78-yard touchdown, in his NFL debut.
Licht once joked with me that if the team had a couple of dozen picks he could make everyone happy. While funny, it’s true. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Buccaneers won’t be either.
After his tremendous effort for the Chiefs, Hunt is the current leading rusher in the NFL ahead of fellow rookies Cook (127 yards) and Fournette (100 yards) and a host of veterans. I’m sure it stung Licht a little bit seeing Hunt light it up on Thursday Night Football to kick off the NFL season.
What will sting even more is if Tampa Bay’s ground game falters for the first three games of the 2017 season in the absence of starting running back Doug Martin, who is serving a suspension for PED usage dating back to the end of the 2016 campaign. Jacquizz Rodgers will get the start against Chicago on Sunday with the improving Peyton Barber as the backup, especially in short yardage or goal line situations. Charles Sims will continue to serve as the third-down back and will get a few strategic carries, too.
“The real grind starts this upcoming week,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to be ready. I want to do better than last year. For me, that was expected as I came in to fill a role. But now an opportunity is here. It isn’t a surprise for me.”
Make no mistake, though. Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter is confident in his running backs heading into Sunday’s game against Chicago, and he’s not looking back in a rearview mirror.
“What makes me feel good about them is they’re our guys,” Koetter said. “I love every one of our guys because they’re our guys. Our fans should love them too because they’re our guys. [We’re] going to win or lose with our guys. It doesn’t have to go any further than that – those are our guys and that’s whom we are playing with.
“The cavalry is not coming. All 32 teams are in the same exact boat and I can’t wait to see those guys play on Sunday – all of them – because they’re our guys.”
While the Godwin pick may truly pay off down the line, drafting Hunt could have aided Tampa Bay even more in 2017, especially in the first three games.
Licht had hoped to get some help at running back in the form of Jeremy McNichols, a fifth-round pick out of Boise State. But as Hard Knocks showed, McNichols struggled with Dirk Koetter’s playbook, especially in pass protection, and was tentative running the ball. McNichols didn’t make the 53-man roster and spurned the opportunity to join Tampa Bay’s practice squad.
After whiffing for a potential down-the-road replacement for Martin, Licht and the Bucs must go back to the drawing board and find another running back next year. For me, the next version of Hunt is San Diego State senior running back Rashaad Penny – a guy you’ve never heard of. And let’s face it. Many of you hadn’t heard about Hunt prior to me writing about him or his breakout performance at the Senior Bowl unless you were a Toledo alum.
While he doesn’t get the attention that Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and LSU’s Derrius Guice from the media, nor is he on national television nearly as often as Georgia’s Nick Chubb, USC’s Ronald Jones II or Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough, Penny is a damn good running back, whose name will be known to most by the end of the college football season if he continues to produce like he has.
While playing behind Donnell Pumphrey, who became college football’s all-time career leading rusher last year, Penny still ran for 1,005 yards and 11 touchdowns on 135 carries (7.4 avg.) with 15 catches for 224 yards (14.9 avg.) and three touchdowns. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound back had five 100-yard games last year, including a 10-carry, 208-yard, two-touchdown effort against Nevada.
Penny would be an ideal fit in Tampa Bay. Running backs have to catch the ball in Koetter’s offense and Penny has 27 catches for 382 yards and five touchdowns thus far in his Aztecs career. He can run all the routes from wheel routes to screens, and had a 33-yard touchdown catch last week against Arizona State, which was his coming out party to college football and NFL scouts.
Sun Devils running back Kalen Ballage was perhaps the more heralded NFL prospect coming into the game with 1,005 total yards (536 yards rushing, 469 yards receiving) and 15 touchdowns last year for the Sun Devils. After all, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound runner had 137 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns in a 68-55 win against Patrick Mahomes and Texas Tech last year.
But it was Penny who stole the show with 353 all-purpose yards, including a career-high 216 yards (38 receiving yards on three catches) on offense and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which was the sixth of his career. With one more kickoff return for a score this season, Penny will tie Clemson’s C.J. Spiller and Houston’s Tyron Carrier for the FBS career record.
Penny has tackle-breaking ability and game-breaking speed. He’s got three runs of 70 yards or more, including a career-long 95-yard touchdown against Arizona State last Saturday. While Penny was racking up the yards, the Sun Devils netted only 44 yards on 31 carries. Ballage had just 44 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
“Tonight kind of proved it to a lot of people, playing against the Pac-12 and a Power 5 team,” Penny told the San Diego Tribune. “I felt like this game probably could have been the game where a lot of people took notice. I’ve been in this waiting game for three years. I couldn’t wait to get my opportunity.”
Aztecs head coach Rocky Long wasn’t surprised by Penny’s standout performance at Arizona State.
“You’re just seeing what we knew all along,” Long told the San Diego Tribune. “He had a great year last year, too. He just didn’t carry it as much because the guy in front of him (Pumphrey) was setting the all-time NCAA record for rushing. You’re just seeing more of him.”
With 413 yards in two games, Penny is currently the second-leading rusher in the nation behind Hawaii’s Diocemy Saint Juste (434), whose total is over three games. Penny’s 206.5 yards per game lead the nation, while his 284 all-purpose yards is currently the most in the nation.
“Rashaad Penny is going to be one of the four or five best running backs in this country and he’s got no chance to win the (Doak Walker) Award,” said Long, beginning to walk off the postgame podium. “Pretty sad, isn’t it?”
While Penny may suffer the same fate as Hunt and won’t get the national attention and acclaim he deserves during his senior season, NFL scouts will be taking note. And you can bet the scouts in Tampa Bay will be scouring the college ranks looking for another running back to add to the team next year.
Martin will turn 29 in January, so the question becomes how long will he be an elite type of runner – provided he stays healthy? The Bucs can’t afford to wait to find out.
If Tampa Bay has a playoff season the Bucs won’t be in the running for Guice or Barkley. But if he has another outstanding effort this week against a more formidable Pac-12 defense at Stanford, I would put Penny right up there with them. He would look awfully good in red and pewter next year.