San Diego State offensive coordinator Jeff Horton has this expression for the homesick players who have one foot out the door the moment they step on campus.

"I-8 eyes," Horton calls it.

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"We used to say that for whatever was the closest interstate — they'd get the I-8 eyes — looking for that bus to go back home," Horton said.

When he arrived at SDSU three years ago, running back Rashaad Penny had the I-8 eyes. Had them bad.

And Penny, who grew up in Norwalk, was only an hour and half from home. He says he was calling his mother after his first week at SDSU.

"I don't think it was even homesick," said SDSU cornerback Kameron Kelly, Penny's teammate and roommate. "I think the workouts were too hard."

Whatever it was, Penny said, "I told myself I don't want to do it anymore. That Sunday I told her she could come get me."

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After one week? Penny's mom, Desiree Penny, says Rashaad was on the phone after one day. And every day thereafter.

"He was saying, 'They don't like me. I've got to come home. I need to come home. I'm sick. I've got a headache,'" Desiree said. "Rashaad starts making up all types of stuff when he doesn't like something."

The calls weren't just to his mom. They also were to his sister at Norwalk High. Rashaad asked her to make something up to convince his mom to come get him.

"My daughter comes home," Desiree continued, "and says, 'Could you please tell Rashaad to stop calling? Could you change my phone number because Rashaad is calling me in class telling me he has to come home.'"

No matter what, Mama wasn't coming to get him.

"Nope," Desiree told Rashaad. "This is what you wanted."

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Rashaad didn't even try to work on his dad.

"I could never say anything to my dad," Rashaad said. "He's one of the types of dads who could never let his sons quit or fail in life."

Good thing.

If Penny had run back home, SDSU fans would never have gotten to see him run back kickoffs or run away from defenders.

He wouldn't hold SDSU's career record for kickoff return touchdowns (five) and threaten the NCAA mark (seven) for FBS schools. He wouldn't be the Mountain West's two-time Special Teams Player of the Year and a preseason all-conference pick at both running back and kick returner.

If Penny hadn't stayed, D.J. Pumphrey (2,133 yards) and Penny (1,018 yards) wouldn't have become the first 2,000/1,000 rushers in NCAA history to share the same backfield.

Penny wouldn't be poised to replace Pumphrey as the featured back in an Aztecs offense that has set school rushing records each of the past two seasons.

And Penny wouldn't have matured into a respected player who this season is one of SDSU's four senior captains, along with Kelly, safety Trey Lomax and right guard Antonio Rosales.

"It would have been the worst mistake I ever made," Penny said.

His mindset changed hours after Mama said she wasn't coming: "The next day I made a commitment that I've got to stay here, that this is what I want."

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Horton wasn't so sure.

"He sat in the back row of the running back room, right by me, right by my side," said Horton, who also coaches the Aztecs running backs. "He was very quiet. Didn't talk much. As soon as he stepped out of the room, he called mom. ... I was afraid to put him down on the scout team. I was afraid he might not come back."

Perhaps complicating the situation was the fact that Penny was going to have to wait his turn at the Aztecs' deepest position. He had two carries as a freshmen and 63 carries as a sophomore as the third back behind Pumphrey and Chase Price.

Penny still made an impact as a kick returner in 2015, setting an SDSU single-season record with three kick return scores. That included a pair of 100-yard returns (he added a third last season), a feat which has been accomplished only six times in school history.

"You always have to go through that waiting game," Penny said, "and patiently waiting to get your chance."

It wasn't as if Penny didn't get his hands on the ball out of the backfield last season. His 1,018 yards came on 136 carries, for a team-high 7.5-yard average. He also showed an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, producing three touchdowns (of 25, 27 and 41 yards) among 15 receptions.

It was a substantial contribution, although obscured by what Pumphrey accomplished. Pumphrey led the nation in rushing on the way to setting an NCAA record for career rushing yards (6,405). Head coach Rocky Long is every bit as confident in Penny.

"I thought D.J. was the best running back in the country last year," Long said. "I think Penny, in our mind, is as good as any running back in the country this year. Completely different styles."

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The 5-11, 220-pound Penny possess a rare combination of strength and speed and is what his coach calls "a patient slasher."

"He's a power guy," Long said. "He's going to look like he's going really, really slow, then he sees a hole and darts through that hole. You better get your whole body in that hole or you're not going to slow him down. Then if he gets out in the open, he can outrun you."

This hasn't been lost on those paying attention.

SDSU had three players taken in the 2017 NFL Draft — guard Nico Siragusa (fourth round), Pumphrey (fifth) and cornerback Damontae Kazee (fifth). There are those who say Penny would have been the first SDSU player selected had he made himself available.

"Several scouts said that," Long said.

Penny's parents encouraged Rashaad, a communications major, to return and finish school. So did older brother Elijhaa Penny, a running back at Idaho who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals.

"My thing was, get your education," Desiree Penny said. "If they want you, they'll come for you the next year."

If he stays healthy, Penny's stock should rise substantially as SDSU's featured back.

"We plan on him having the ball just as much as Pumphrey did last year," Long said. "And if the offensive line performs up to par, he will probably come close to the same number of yards and the same number of touchdowns.

Pumphrey carried a school-record 349 times last season. If Penny gets that many carries this year, and maintains his 7.1-yard career rushing average, he would gain a school-record 2,478 yards.

"I'm an unselfish guy," Penny said. "I never look at the accolades. That's just how I was raised... I'm excited about winning a (conference) championship. That's the main goal."

He would like to go after Pumphrey's single-season rushing record, though.

"It would be very special," Penny said. "I would thank him more than anything because he set it. He set a bar for me to go reach. Definitely, I'll go get it, and he would probably be proud of me. I would thank the offensive line because they made it possible. Everybody. It's more than just one individual."

With Penny's expanded workload, sophomore Juwan Washington (the Aztecs' backup running back) will be SDSU's primary kick returner. Long has said he will send Penny out to return kicks when the Aztecs "need a spark."

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Penny is intent this year on two things:

  1. Making opponents know he's there — "I'm tired of running away from people. I've got to start running through people."
  2. Letting teammates know he's there — "I'm working on being better as a leader. You get tired of leading by example. It's time to start being vocal. I'm not a vocal guy, but I'm getting there."

 

It's difficult to imagine that this is the same guy who showed up on SDSU's doorstep three years ago. That's because it's not the same guy.

"When I think about me leaving, that was the old Rashaad," Penny said. "I don't even know that guy anymore. I've developed to where I love this place, and I don't know why I ever thought about leaving in the first place."

Desiree Penny says it's difficult to get Rashaad to visit these days.

"Are you coming home?" she asks.

"Oh, no, I'm staying out here," Rashaad responds, saying, "Coach Horton's wife is going to cook for me this weekend," or "We're going to the movies."

"Ok," Desiree says. "Well, just let them know that I'm still Mama."

Of that, people can be certain.

"He's still a mama's boy," Horton said. "But that's all right. I tell him, 'So am I. I'm still a mama's boy, and I'm 60.' "

This article is written by Kirk Kenney from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.