kk brooks
Photo: Zach Sheldon

After dicing up Lehigh for 268 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, sophomore running back Karekin Brooks now has 410 rushing yards and five touchdowns, placing him 11th and 5th, respectively, in the Ivy League.

Check that — 11th and 5th among 2016 players. As a reminder, Brooks has played in just two games.

Penn football’s running backs have stepped up after senior and 2016 first-team All-Ivy selection Tre Solomon left in the first quarter of the season opener with an apparent ankle injury. In each of the Quakers' games this season, they have exceeded 300 rushing yards en route to the first 2-0 start for the program since 2003.

Brooks was one of the stars in last Saturday’s 65-47 shootout victory at Lehigh. With the Mountain Hawks opting to double-cover senior wide receiver Justin Watson, Penn didn’t try to force the ball to him and instead Brooks made them pay, falling just four yards short of the program record for rushing yards. 

But in the midst of a competitive game, Brooks was unaware he was approaching history.

“I didn’t have an idea until before the last drive, then somebody told me I had 200-something yards. I said, ‘Nah, probably not,’” Brooks said. “I ended up having over 200.”

While Brooks’ Lehigh performance earned him Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors, all four running backs who have carried the ball thus far for the Quakers have been effective, including sophomore Abe Willows and freshman Isaiah Malcome.

Penn has depth at the running back position, and the backs have seen their talents highlighted by excellent offensive line play. With three new starters on the line, the unit has demonstrated early on that it will impact games.

“It feels great,” senior center Nathan Kirchmier said of the team’s rushing success so far. “We pride ourselves on running the ball … and as an O-line we pride ourselves on doing our job. We really don’t get much recognition, but if we run the ball for 300 yards we’ll probably get noticed a little bit." 

While a dynamic running game has been a key feature of recent Red and Blue offenses, the optics will be different this season without dual-threat quarterback Alek Torgersen, now playing on the Washington Redskins practice squad.

Penn is running on a similar proportion of its running plays this season, but the scrambles and designed runs from Torgersen have been replaced with more opportunities for the running backs, who have handled 85 percent of the team’s rush attempts in 2017 compared to 57 percent in 2016.

With Brooks playing the way he was, it’s easy to see why the Quakers kept handing him the ball. Coach Ray Priore is impressed with the Marietta, Ga. native, who he said has been humble and diligent.

“His focus, attention to detail for a young person has been really good. Sort of baptism by fire, he’s been thrown into it, and really hasn’t flinched,” Priore said.

While happy with the production they have seen from Solomon’s fill-ins, the Quakers are still eagerly awaiting the return of Solomon, who handled almost all of the team’s running back touches in 2016.

Solomon has been practicing but is still questionable to play on Friday night against Dartmouth — it’s possible the short week has an impact. Due to his injury, he was unavailable to comment on this story. Priore offered an update on Solomon’s recovery.

“He’s rehabbing every single day.  He’s working out but we don’t know when he’ll be ready,” Priore said. “Fortunately, the guys in the first two games without him being there have shown promise and production.”

If Solomon returns to game action before his injury fully heals, he might not immediately resume the workload he handled in 2016, when his 17.6 carries per game for 90.7 yards both paced the Ancient Eight.

It is unclear how exactly each of the backs will be used when everyone is at full health, but both Solomon and Brooks figure to be prominently involved.

“We’ll worry about that issue when we get to that point,” Priore said. “Key thing is that it’s a good issue to have … when your 1a and 1b are in there, you have fresh guys in there and equally as potent."

As for the offensive line, it won’t make too much of a difference which back is in the game, as Kirchmier likened the running styles of Solomon and Brooks.

“They both are actually pretty similar. They both try to punish, try to run over people, but they have deceptive quickness,” Kirchmier said. “I saw [Brooks] juke out a couple people but he’s also running into that hole and hitting it hard. It’s nice to block for someone that’s falling forward for 5 yards.”

Penn might not run for 300 yards every week, but sustaining this early-season success will be instrumental in winning a third consecutive conference title, an endeavor that begins Friday night when Dartmouth visits Franklin Field.

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