Elijhaa Penny was almost unrecognizable during Idaho's first week of practice. Yeah, he was wearing No. 6 and charged up the middle of the offensive line, lowering his broad shoulders in what would've been a punishing blow to defenders had there been live tackling.
But then he was the same running back who on his next run would burst through the hole, plant his foot and quickly change directions in an attempt to make the defender miss. On other plays he would attempt to spin off would-be tacklers and on others he would try to juke his defender.
Just six months ago these are things that Penny wasn't much capable of. He arrived in Moscow last fall from Cerritos College at 255 pounds and had to work during the season to cut that down to 240 pounds. In the mean time, he was Idaho's most reliable short-distance and goal-line back. He led Idaho with 12 rushing touchdowns and also led Idaho with 589 yards rushing on 139 carries.
In between the 20-yard lines, Idaho preferred to use senior Jerrel Brown, who ran for 569 yards on 117 attempts.
Penny wanted to come into this season as an every-down back, so he went into the offseason attempted to get down to no more than 230 pounds. He's accomplished that.
"He worked really hard in the offseason to get himself ready to go," running backs coach Jason Shumaker said. "He wants to be an every down back and to do that he had to lose a little bit of weight and that’s hopefully going to help with his explosiveness and quickness and ability to make bigger plays."
The plan for Penny is to be able to carry the ball 20 to 25 carries a game. While Shumaker doesn't necessarily want him to change his style, he knows Penny being light on his feet presents new challenges for opposing defenses.
"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, he did a lot of good stuff last year and was real physical player," Shumaker said. "So we’re definitely going to keep pushing for that. If he can give us another look, then great."
Penny has easily noticed the payoff of his new weight and certainly anticipates switching up his running style some.
"Last year I was just running into guys, putting my shoulder down. This year I feel like I can really make a man miss on one on one in open space," Penny said.
Penny is flanked on the depth chart by the 5-foot-8, 205 pound Aaron Duckworth, who is in line to a number of change-of-pace carries.
"They (coaches) say me and him are like lightning and thunder, me and him go hand in hand," Duckworth said. "He brings a different style than I do, he’s a bigger back, more pound it and I’m more a speed back. I can still deliver a blow."
Penny has developed a good relationship with Duckworth, mentoring him and taking on a leadership role.
"(I'm) approaching the season with a different type of mindset and different kind of attitude and being that leader," Penny said. "I don’t really speak too much so I really want to show by working hard and trying to get to the running backs and the rest of the team that if we work hard we can achieve our goals."
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Saunders, son of former Idaho running back Walt Saunders, in the third-string running back this spring. Gonzaga Prep's Jack Bamis will join the running back picture in the fall.