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Trent Pennix made a switch in more than one way this offseason.
The N.C. State redshirt sophomore switched from jersey number 26 to 6, the number he wore in high school. Perhaps Pennix wanted to get back to his high school mode, where he starred at nearby Sanderson as a featured back, rushing for 3,039 career yards and 35 touchdowns for the Spartans.
During his four-year prep career he was more than just a dangerous running back. Pennix also caught 48 passes for 648 yards and finished his senior season with 1,694 all-purpose yards.
It was that versatility that allowed the Wolfpack coaches to envision the perfect role for Pennix once he arrived on campus. The N.C. State staff hasn’t used Pennix in the backfield much, even though he’s always been listed as a running back. In 24 career games, Pennix has carried the ball just 36 times, his rushing attempts declining each year. But it’s all part of the plan.
Pennix has found the end zone three times, all touchdown receptions, showing the ability to be a dangerous pass catching option out of the backfield. He’s also paid his dues on special teams, showing he will do whatever it takes to help the team.
When the Wolfpack plays its annual Kay Yow spring game at 1 p.m. on Saturday, it will be the first full look at Pennix in a new number, but also flourishing in a new role. Fans saw flashes of it last season with Pennix lining up in a fullback/H-back position. He will also be in the mix to fill the void left by departing tight ends Cary Angeline and Dylan Autenrieth.
So how did the coaches sway a former running back, who was ranked 37th in the nation at his position, that he probably wouldn’t get many carries once he arrived on campus? It was simple, they just had to say one name.
“The coaches told me I could potentially be like JaySam,” Pennix told the News & Observer. “And have the same role as he did. Over the years I’ve showed the coaches I’m ready to be in that spot.”
N.C. State fans — and ACC opponents — know all about Jaylen Samuels, AKA JaySam.
Currently a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Samuels was a running back in high school and spent his first season with the Wolfpack in the backfield. One glance at the N.C. State record book shows that Samuels is the career receptions leader at the school (202 catches for 1,855 yards).
That number makes him the all-time career leader in receptions by a tight end. Three of the top single-season tight end receiving records all belong to Samuels (2016, 17, 18). Not bad for a guy who rushed for 1,107 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career.
Samuels, who has been strictly used as a running back in the NFL was simply a football player at N.C. State. For the upcoming year, Pennix hopes to fill that same void.
This spring he’s bounced around different position group meeting rooms, spending most of his time with the tight ends, but moonlighting in the running backs room, his main home the past three seasons.
Pennix has found more success catching the ball (165 career receiving yards, 3 TDs,) than running (125 yards, 0 TDs) for N.C. State, and with his size (6-3, 236) and willingness to block, it seemed like the perfect time for Pennix to transition to his new role.
He said he never got frustrated with the lack of carries and was willing to get on the field on special teams. Pennix wanted to help the team any way he could. A lot of people say that and it sounds good, but Pennix really took it to heart and accepted his role.
“My main role is not even to worry about me,” Pennix said. “But to help the team progress and go forward instead of backwards.”
The staff brought Pennix along gradually the past three seasons and he is using this spring to get better acquainted with the H-back role. Head coach Dave Doeren sees Pennix as a combination of not only Samuels, but also former tight end/H-back Cole Cook.
“I think Trent is going to, you’re going to see his position kind of change,” Doeren said. “To give us some flexibility in personnel.”
With running backs Bam Knight and Ricky Person, Jr. out for spring drills no one would have blamed Pennix for trying to focus on the running back spot and take advantage of those extra available reps. He’s gotten some touches the last few weeks, but that’s become second on his priority list behind learning the tight end and H-back spot.
“I’m meeting with the tight ends everyday, perfecting my craft everyday,” Pennix said. “I feel like those (guys) are really helping me get comfortable with the tight end position.”
Even moonlighting as a tight end requires some blocking. One thing about former tight ends like Cook and Autenrieth is they played a huge part in the run game. Pennix did more route running than blocking from the H-back/fullback spot a year ago, but hopes to help out doing the dirty work moving forward.
“I’m still trying to maintain working with my hands, being inside and understanding the full fundamentals of run blocking,” Pennix added.
Part of that is watching Samuels film to see the intangibles he brought to the game.
“With him his explosiveness, his grit attitude,” Pennix said. “He never let anything get in his way. Any situation the coaches put him in I knew he could do his job just by his demeanor and the way he carried himself on the field.”
As a guy who got 500 carries in high school, Pennix admitted he misses getting the ball regularly.
“It would be lovely to get the ball (more),” Pennix said with a smile. “But like I said earlier, I’m just doing whatever helps the team.”
Pennix got 22 carries in four games in 2018, 13 in 2019 and one in 2020. In a lot of cases a player would transfer, seeking out more carries elsewhere. Pennix, who always felt he had a bigger role coming, never once thought about leaving N.C. State.
“I didn’t really think about all that negativity,” Pennix said. “I go in every practice thinking it’s a game and hope the coaches realize my intentions of staying and helping this team are real. I’m really loyal to this program and there’s really no other program I would want to play with.”