How could an award honoring the top running back in college football miss the NCAA’s #5 all-time single season rushing leader?
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Failure to recognize Rashaad Penny as a 2017 Doak Walker Award finalist is a watershed moment for SMU’s selection process.
The Doak Walker Award was created to honor the top running back in NCAA football. Its honorary namesake, Doak Walker, was a halfback who played for the Southern Methodist University Mustangs, and then went on to play in the National Football League for the Detroit Lions.
Doak Walker awardees are selected from a short list of finalists. The winner receives a beautiful, iconic Blair Buswell sculpture of Walker cast in bronze and mounted on a wooden base in a special ceremony.
The first Doak Walker awardee was Greg Lewis of the University of Washington in 1990; the most recent was Bryce Love of Stanford in 2017.
According to Southern Methodist University, to qualify, a candidate plays predominantly running back and has made extraordinary contributions to his team; the candidate is enrolled in a degree program, is in good academic standing and is on schedule to graduate. The candidate holds a record of good citizenship within and beyond the athletic sphere; the candidate has demonstrated a record of leadership, and the candidate exhibits the characteristics of sportsmanship associated with Doak Walker.
The NCAA’s most successful running back during 2017 by nearly all measures was San Diego State University’s Rashaad Penny. Penny, a graduating senior in good academic standing, certainly met all of the qualifications. He is also known by teammates to be a sincere, endearing leader on the Aztecs squad. He also had an incredible year for both Aztecs and the rest of the NCAA. Taking a closer look at Penny’s accomplishments, his performance this season was truly remarkable.
Rashaad Penny’s 2017 accomplishments include:
- 2017 NCAA leading 2248 rushing yards for the season. Penny became the #5 all-time single season NCAA rushing leader.
- 23 touchdowns scored for the season
- Average 7.8 yards per rush for the season
- 7 career kickoff returns for TD- tying the NCAA all-time record
- 200+ rush yards for five straight games
- Strong performances in 2017 wins against Stanford and ASU including outperforming Bryce Love in all-purpose yardage during 2017 Stanford match
- SDSU all-time single season record for rushing yards passing Donnel Pumphrey
- SDSU single game rushing record passing Marshall Faulk with 429 yards
- Mountain West 2017 Offensive AND Special Teams Player of the Year
In summary, Rashaad Penny made a convincing case to be the 2017 Doak Walker Award winner.
Not awarding Rashaad Penny, however, was not where the Committee failed.
The undeniably unacceptable failure of the Doak Walker Committee during 2017 was its failure to recognize Rashaad Penny- the nation’s most productive and accomplished running back- as a Doak Walker Award finalist.
That’s correct: Penny didn’t even make the list of finalists. There isn’t a plausible explanation for the miss. It is, without question, a watershed moment for the Doak Walker Award. The committee was obviously unaware of Penny’s abilities and accomplishments; they did not know his speed, his ability to break tackles and manufacture yardage, or his ability to impose his will on opponents- all the while playing behind a young, inexperienced Aztecs offensive line.
The committee did instead invite Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who was then ranked #29 in the nation in rushing production alongside Bryce Love and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (respectively #2 and #3 in the nation behind Penny at time of selection) to the finals. While the latter both deserved to be finalists (and arguably winners), it is hard to fathom that Barkley was selected over Penny, given his productivity during 2017.
Associate Director for the Doak Walker Award Jeff Lockhart was quoted in a San Diego Union Tribune article titled Pennies for their Thoughts stating “I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re owed an apology, but I completely understand the (fans’) outrage. When your guy is leading the nation, by all accounts exceeds the criteria, if I was a (sic) fan I would at least do a double take. I completely understand the outrage in him not getting something that he probably deserves.”
Lockhart went on to add “Being the leading yards guy in the nation, I expected (Penny) would come out of our finalist vote as one of those three. If I was voting, I would put him in my top three.”
There is no apology, but an acknowledgment that Penny belonged in the top three. Maybe an apology would be appropriate. It would show the integrity to correct a selection process that may require remedial attention.
The 2017 failure reveals that the committee who selects the winner does not fully familiarize itself with all of the nation’s top performers- that qualified candidates have actually been overlooked- surprising as this may sound.
Like Stanford, San Diego State University is a West Coast team. Unlike Stanford, being a member of the Mountain West Conference ultimately means late night kickoff times.
Pac-12 teams often play earlier in the day than Mountain West teams, and they simply get more coverage. Mountain West teams often kick off at 7:30pm Pacific Time- or later. To Mountain West Conference fans, it’s clear that Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson has not done much at all to change the fact.
Nonetheless, late play does not excuse the Doak Walker committee from being aware of the very best running back candidates in all of the NCAA regardless of location or play time.
It is actually possible that much of the Doak Walker committee had not seen Rashaad Penny play a single game prior to the Armed Forces Bowl, which aired at 3:30pm EST. And for those who did watch the suspenseful nail-biting bowl game: they witnessed a jaw-dropping 221 rushing yards and four touchdowns by Penny on just 14 carries.
Army definitely stole the win from the Aztecs with 18 seconds to go on a gutsy 2-point conversion gamble that paid off big- but Penny stole the show, and everybody who watched the game left certain that they had just witnessed 2017’s number one college running back in action.
The San Diego State Aztecs hold a 32-7 record over the past three seasons, and have managed three straight wins against Pac-12 opponents (Cal, ASU, Stanford). Rocky Long’s Aztecs managed to produce nine NFL players out of their 2016 graduating class. The Aztecs are anything but obscure; they are Group of Five elite. They are suiting up and, more often than not, defeating increasingly formidable opponents.
If running backs as significant as superstar Rashaad Penny are overlooked, how can the Doak Walker Award possibly maintain any continuing credibility? Epic failures in worthy player recognition are neither good for the NCAA nor for the integrity of the Doak Walker Award. SMU’s Doak Walker Committee really ought to consider re-evaluating its selection process so the next great running back is not missed.