At 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Nipomo High running back Eric Penningroth didn’t make his presence felt by simply bulling his way over would-be tacklers. He didn’t have to. Most of the time, he just made them miss.
Nipomo coach Russ Edwards remembers first being impressed with the elusiveness of Penningroth — The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Football Player of the Year — while watching the school’s JV team play during his first year as the Titans’ varsity head coach in 2007.
“He never really gives guys a big target to hit,” Edwards said. “This entire season, he’s taken maybe three really good shots.”
This year, Penningroth accounted for a county-best 2,008 yards from scrimmage, 17 touchdowns and 13 two-point conversions.
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The Titans went 8-4, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs. They were the only PAC 7 or Los Padres League team in the county to win a playoff game, and the only county team from any of its five leagues to host a playoff game after Thanksgiving.
Along the way, Penningroth did it all, rushing for 1,593 yards and 11 touchdowns on 238 carries, catching 29 passes for 415 yards and four more scores, and going 8-of-16 passing for 86 yards and two additional touchdowns. He scored nine two-point conversions and passed for four others.
“He doesn’t look like a typical football player, but he’s definitely got it in him,” Nipomo quarterback Josh Correia said. “He gets his head pounded in by guys twice his size every game, and he just gets up like nothing even hurts him, ever. He just shakes it off, game-after-game, hit-after-hit. He’s definitely the toughest kid I’ve ever known.”
‘The Penny-cat package’
Penningroth’s role expanded in late October, when Correia — the leading passer in both San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties — had to have an emergency appendectomy two days before a game at St. Joseph, a top-three team in the division.
Edwards rushed to find a way to make up for the absence of Correia — who ultimately missed two weeks — installing a scheme similar to the wildcat backfield popularized by the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
In its initial trial run against St. Joseph, on just two days of practice, Nipomo struggled to find an offensive rhythm. But the next week, in a 37-14 win over Cabrillo, Penningroth took direct snaps and finished with a touchdown apiece running, passing and receiving — all in the first half. He also ran in a two-point conversion and threw for another. The look was coined “the Penny-cat package” at Nipomo practices.
“When coach let me know we were running the wildcat, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s perfect,’ because Penny is really an all-around player,” Correia said. “He can play running back, quarterback — he can do it all.”
Penningroth, who amassed 3,102 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons, also played some defensive back and returned kicks, primarily as a junior.
‘Book smarts’ carry over to gridiron
It should come as no surprise that Penningroth has a high football IQ, as he maintains a grade-point average that hovers above 4.2.
“A lot of guys might not convert being book-smart into athletic-smart,” Edwards said. “Eric’s intelligence really transfers.”
Edwards, who trusted Penningroth to audible at the line of scrimmage in the Titans’ wildcat and two-point conversion schemes, estimates that Penningroth made the wrong read twice all year.
Midway through this season, Edwards said, he began even changing play calls based on input Penningroth provided after looking across the line of scrimmage.
“It got to a point this year where we’d say, ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’” Edwards laughed. “So the joke became, ‘Whatever Eric wants to do.’ If he had an idea about a pass route or where to line up or what type of tracks he should take, we’d add different wrinkles each week.”
Ivy League could be college destination
It’s uncertain whether Penningroth, who’s considering majoring in environmental and engineering fields, will play collegiately.
“I’ve always been undersized,” said Penningroth, who has played since he was 8. “I’d like to play in college. It seems like I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t play.”
He may get that chance. UC Davis recently requested film of Penningroth, and Cornell has already visited Nipomo’s campus to inquire about him.
Finding the right fit academically is paramount for Penningroth, who says he won’t overly chase opportunities to play college football if it means he wouldn’t be in a position to attain the lofty type of degree he wants.
“He’s got his head on straight,” Edwards said. “He’s got big plans for his life.”
Edwards is confident that Penningroth could develop into a two-year starter in the FCS (formerly Division I-AA).
“Wherever he would go, they’d get a good football player,” Edwards said. “If somebody gives him a shot, he’s going to be a great asset to somebody.”
A historic class
In the Titans’ 48-18 quarterfinal loss to Serra of Gardena (which featured roughly a dozen Division I prospects), Penningroth ran for 120 yards on 25 carries, both of which were game highs.
But Penningroth wasn’t the only star for the Titans, who returned 16 other seniors who started in 2008. The group opened the postseason by claiming the first playoff victory in the seven-year varsity history of the school, 39-12 at Verbum Dei of Los Angeles.
“We’ve played together since we were 7 or 8,” said Nipomo senior Duane Hanna, the LPL Linebacker of the Year. “Five or 10 years from now, when we look back, we’ll say we had a special year.”
After being interviewed over the phone by The Tribune following the win over Verbum Dei, Penningroth called back moments later to politely request that others be interviewed for the next article.
And there was no shortage of other deserving Titans.
Senior receiver Kevin Britt caught 53 passes for 893 yards and 11 touchdowns — all county bests. Britt, who also added 71 tackles as a cornerback, said Wednesday he has been offered a scholarship to play at Cal Poly, where he’d likely play defensive back.
Correia passed for county bests of 1,809 yards and 20 touchdowns, and said Menlo College has expressed interest in him, although Monterey Peninsula College is also in the picture.
“With as many weapons as we had, teams couldn’t shut down just one person,” Britt said.
Conversely, a swarming defense was led by Hanna, who raced his way to 134 tackles and would project well as possibly a weakside linebacker or strong safety at the next level.
“We’re pretty tight,” Penningroth said of the senior class. “We’re all going to see each other and keep talking to each other.
“It’s a great honor to be named this, with all the great players in the county.”