For many Idaho fans, the thought of losing bruising senior running back Elijhaa Penny to graduation is a cause for pause. Penny joined the Vandal program just two years ago; a highly regarded JC tailback that picked Coach Petrino’s squad in the second year of a massive rebuilding effort. It took Penny a few weeks to get his legs under him that first season, but by the end of 2014 a Vandal running back had emerged for the offense, and Idaho fans, to rally around.
In 2015 Penny didn’t disappoint, becoming the between-the-tackles grinder Petrino’s offense needs. Along the way he became the first 1,000 yard rusher at Idaho in about a decade, finishing with 1,174 yards on 247 carries and 10 touchdowns, adding 27 receptions for 227 yards and two more scores through the air.
To say the Vandals have big shoes to fill this year replacing Penny’s production is an understatement. In fact, it’s possibly the understatement of the off-season.
The Idaho running back depth chart has talent, but is young and lacks experience among the returners. Topping the list will be junior-to-be Aaron Duckworth, a 5-foot-9, 201-pound speedster out of Florida who accumulated 256 yards on 71 carries with three touchdowns in 2015. Sophomore Isaiah Saunders (ranked No.131 nationally as a senior) and redshirt freshman Denzal Brantley (another 3-star prospect out of Los Alamitos) will be battling for playing time, and redshirt freshman rocket Calvary Pugh out of Florida may also be in the mix, although Pugh may be moving to receiver. But more on that later.
Keeping the focus on Idaho’s 2016 tailbacks, the pool of candidates got a healthy boost in this recruiting cycle when Damien High School (La Verne, CA) star Dylan Thigpen committed to the Vandals. His productivity at Damien was prolific and record breaking. Literally.
Among the Damien records to fall was the career rushing record held by 2003 graduate Ian Johnson (yes, that Ian Johnson), previously set at 3,603 yards. Thigpen didn’t just break it, he crushed it with a career mark of 4,007 yards and 47 touchdowns in 25 games. He also set a new single-season mark after rushing for 1,855 yards on 260 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. He topped off his career by setting the school’s single-game record when he exploded for 339 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-21 victory over Ayala.
Dylan led the Baseline League and the West Valley Division of California in rushing as a senior. He was also named a 1st Team All-Baseline League selection at running back and was also named the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin All-Area 1st Team Running Back.
Recognized by many as an athlete with a high ceiling, Thigpen is a 3-star prospect ranked by Scout as the No.80 running back in the 2016 recruiting class.
A PROSPECT OF THIGPEN’S CALIBER is going to have a fair-share of suitors. Among his many options was an offer from Nevada and interest from several Pac-12 schools including Washington State, Arizona State, and UCLA. As has been echoed by numerous UI prospects this recruiting season, Idaho’s coaching staff made a tight connection with Dylan and received a verbal pledge from one of the highest prospects on their recruiting board. They also left little doubt that Thigpen would be a building block for Vandal teams of the future.
“I had a scholarship to Nevada a little bit after I got my scholarship to Idaho,” Thigpen to GoVandals.net. “I just remember that the coaches for Idaho really liked me. Coach Paul Petrino and my recruiter, Coach Aric Williams, actually came by my house to do an in-home visit. After that I just really fell in love with the idea of coaches respecting the player and respecting the family enough to come by and talk about Idaho.
“I just felt this was the place I needed to be.”
Music couldn’t have possibly sounded better to the Idaho coaching staff’s ears when Thigpen made his commitment known in early December. It was the culmination of a recruiting process that wasn’t just the result of a passing glance, but instead was a relationship that was built over many months.
“My recruiter, Coach Williams, actually recruited me when he was at Montana,” Thigpen said. “When he went to Idaho he continued recruiting me, came by my school almost every other week, and by then I realized he must really like me as a player, and must really want me. I always really had my eye open to Idaho and realized maybe this is the school where I should go.
“My family always told me to go where I’m wanted and go where I’m needed, and Idaho seems like that to me.”
He followed that decision up with an official visit to the Moscow campus a couple weeks ago, where he was hosted by junior-to-be field general Matt Linehan. Both could be working in the Vandal backfield in the years ahead.
“Everything went extremely well,” Thigpen said of his official visit. “I had an amazing time bonding with the player and coaches, and had a good time in Moscow.”
A PLAYER WITH THIGPEN’S POTENTIAL AND SKILL SET is not likely to redshirt this fall. A wide open starting job in Idaho’s backfield, coupled with some focused work leading up to the time he joins the program this summer, could land Thigpen a spot in the running back rotation and a home on Special Teams.
“Since their starting runningback Penny is a senior [and graduating],” Dylan said, “they want me to really work in the off-season on getting bigger and faster so I can go to Idaho and compete for a starting spot.”
The feeling is shared by Thigpen, who comes from a football family. His older brother, Damien Thigpen, played at UCLA and was drafted by the Cardinals. His uncle, Gene Lang, played for the Broncos and Falcons in a seven-year NFL career. “I don’t think they really want me to redshirt, and I have never been too big on redshirting because I feel like I have everything going for me now. I feel like I should build on what I already have with the coaches.”
So, on the eve of signing day is Thigpen considering any other programs?
“I’m committed to Idaho,” Thigpen said, “just like they are committed to me.”