Penn State senior halfback Ashley Dean is coming off a monster season that not many outside of Happy Valley saw coming. Dean, a 6th year senior for the Nittany Lions, has had a rocky road on his way to becoming the top halfback prospect in the upcoming CFL Draft.
Dean arrived in Happy Valley as a rather unheralded 2 star recruit. He had a solid though unspectacular high school career playing behind LA Rams HB Todd Gurley at Tarboro High School in Tarboro, NC. When he first stepped on campus, Dean was 5’10” 185 pounds. He didn’t possess elite speed or quickness. He didn’t have shifty jukes or spins. He had very little game tape that showed what he did possess though, elite vision and the ability to get low and run behind his pads. Despite being an undersized back, Dean was running over his teammates in fall practice. Unfortunately for Dean however, he was a Joe Paterno recruit and after a scandal that rocked the country, Bill O’Brien was the new head coach. O’Brien decided to honor Dean’s scholarship with the requirement he redshirted his freshman year and bulk up. Dean reluctantly agreed, and worked his tail off in the weight room, adding 20 pounds of muscle that first year he was at Penn State.
In his redshirt Freshman season Dean wouldn’t see the field as true Freshman QB Christian Hackenberg and his golden arm became the focal point of the offense and the Nittany Lions became a pass first offense. The following season Dean was poised to take on a large role, but head coach Bill O’Brien jumped to the NFL and James Franklin took over. Franklin preferred to throw the ball even more than O’Brien did and again Dean saw limited playing time.
During a fall practice in his Red Shirt Junior season, Dean suffered a torn ACL as he cut during an Oklahoma Drill. Head Coach James Franklin successfully petitioned for a medical red shirt for Dean, meaning he would still have two seasons of eligibility for the Nittany Lions. During his knee rehab, Dean hit a late growth spurt, growing two inches to reach 6 feet tall. He also continued to add upper body strength, and due to the rehab he gained lots of strength in his legs as well. Heading into his 5th season on campus Dean weighed in at a whopping 230 pounds and stood 6 feet tall. He now had a body that matched his physical running style.
In his junior year Dean split time with HB Saquan Barkley, rushing for 873 yards on 138 carries with 4 rushing touchdowns. After deciding to come back for his senior season, his 6th season at Penn State, Dean was handed the starting job heading into the season as Barkley was suspended by Franklin to start the season due to breaking team rules during the summer break. Dean took the opportunity and ran with it, both figuratively and literally.
In his first game as the starter, Dean ran roughshod over an overmatched Akron team. He finished the game with 246 yards on 28 attempts and 3 scores. He followed that up with a 186 yard 2 TD performance vs Pitt, this time on only 16 carries. The Nittany Lions had found their workhorse back as Ashley Dean found himself in the early Heisman talks.
Week after week Dean continued to punish defenses on his way to eclipsing Larry Johnson's single season PSU rushing record of 2087 yards as he would finish with 2143 yards on the ground. One of his signature games came late in the season on the road against Michigan State. In this game Dean would tote the rock a whopping 38 times, rushing for 277 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the runs and breakdown why Dean has been so successful this season and why he projects to be a great back at the next level.
In this first play Penn State comes out in a Shotgun formation with 12 personnel. Both tight ends are aligned to the strong side of the formation, with Dean also lining up on the strong side. The weakside receiver lines up in a close split.
The playcall is a power run featuring down blocking and a pulling right guard. The intended hole is behind the pulling guard between the left guard and tackle.
As Dean takes the hand off and reads his blocking he sees that the intended hole, labeled A on the image above, is rather congested. This leaves him with a few other options, the first is to bend the run inside between the left guard and the center, this is labeled B in the image above, and the second is to cut back all the way against the grain and take it between the center and the right tackle in the gap left by the pulling right guard. This is labeled C in the above image.
Since Dean is not known for being a quick cutting, shifty back, he takes Option B and bends the run upfield into the gap between the left guard and the center. Note that the right guard, #64 Jarod Broussard made it through the congestion and is lining up a block on the Michigan State middle linebacker who read the blocking and was filling the intended hole.
This leaves a truck sized hole for Dean to run through and he's into the 3rd level of the defense right off the bat.
The Michigan State safety makes a nice open field tackle here, but not without Dean lowering his shoulder and punishing him for doing so. The end result of the play? A 12 yard gain and a fresh set of downs. While it wasn't an eye popping run, it illustrates how well Dean patiently reads his blocking and makes the correct cut more often than not.
Later in the game, Dean had another nice run that illustrated why he is a first round pick in the upcoming draft.
In this play the Nittany Lions come out in 21 personnel with the tight end lined up on the left making that the strong side of the formation.
The playcall is a counter run which features misdirection by both Dean, as well as the blocking. With the exception of the pulling left guard, and the right tackle who are both responsible for sealing the edge, the rest of the line down blocks to the left giving the defense the illusion that a run to the strong side is coming.
Unfortunately for the defense reading the blocking, after a quick counterstep left, Dean heads back to the right following his fullback into the gap created by the right tackle and the pulling left guard.
Dean exudes patience and allows his blockers to get into position and provide him with a lane to hit.
Having followed his blocking through the hole, Dean again found himself 1 on 1 vs a safety.
This time however, Dean gets his pad level lower than the safety and turns him into road kill. As he does so, FB #22 Ali Rivas makes his second block on the play, just getting a piece of the 2nd safety, preventing him from making a tackle.
In the meantime a cornerback recovers from his initial block and attempts to run down Dean from behind. However he attempts to wrap him up high which is a mistake.
As Dean steps out of the tackle...
And its 30...20...10...5...Touchdown.
Along with his breakout season, Ashley Dean's draft position should be helped by LeGarrette Blount's MVP season this past year in the CFL as he comps well to both Blount as well as former Bears HB London Pfifer. While some teams will be awaiting the combine and what Dean runs in the 40 yard dash, there are other front offices salivating to get their chance to draft this kid who has had a long, winding journey to get to where he is now.