Q&A with Coach Bryce Erickson

The running backs have been an integral part of an improved ASU offense in 2010, and coming into this season this group is poised to progress even more. Devils Digest sat down with their position coach, Bryce Erickson, for an extensive interview to talk about the prospects of this unit, the status of Deantre Lewis and recruiting the state of Arizona.

Devils Digest: The offense under first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone improved by leaps and bounds from 2009, and the running game is obviously a significant part of this progress. How do you evaluate the performance of your group in 2010 ?

Bryce Erickson: "I thought we improved tremendously. We played some young guys and it was a fresh group. I think this offense is very conducive to a successful running game. When we spread you out we make you think like we are going to throw it but we do run it quite a bit. The running back position in our offense is pivotal to our success. We throw to our running backs quite a bit and we had a few games where a running back was our leading receiver. They are involved in a lot of our hot routes too.

"We do everything we can to involve our running backs and we see it as a very strong point in our offense. We will only be better next year."

DD: Let's talk about in specific about some of the players in this unit, starting with Cameron Marshall. We saw some flashes from him as a freshman, but last year as a sophomore he really stepped up his performance and led all running backs in rushing…

BE: "I think Cameron did a great job. With the depth we have at that position we have constant competition and all those guys know that they have to bring it everyday. Even going now into spring football the only thing Cameron has earned is getting the first teams reps.

"The biggest thing I was proud of with Cameron was his improvement in pass protection. That is the hardest thing for a player coming out of high school to learn. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of experience and he got some of that his first year. He takes a lot of pride in getting better at that and it showed this past season. He did a wonderful job. That is something that the other backs like Deantre and Kyle have to improve on to be complete running backs, but I know they can be better at pass protection as well."

Devils Digest: You obviously had some anxious moments the last few weeks concerning Deantre Lewis who was shot by a stray bullet while visiting family. Can you share with us what you were personally going through when you first heard about this tragic event?

BE: "As his position coach you hear about that and anytime you hear anything about gun violence, even if it isn't football related, it is very dishearting. When I first heard about what happened with Deantre my heart dropped and a bunch of things started to go through my mind. As soon as we heard that his injuries weren't critical that was definitely a breath of fresh air. He was very blessed that there was no nerve, muscle or bone damage.

"This was very emotionally traumatic for him and this was something that none of us could fathom what he was going through. But Deantre is such a smart kid and I think the way he looks at this is that it's a blessing and this will only make him a stronger person and a better football player. It's like that old saying ‘live every day like it's your last.' I think he has a new perspective on life and I think that this will only benefit him as a human being.

"He has been great throughout the whole process and since he has been back at school he has had a wonderful attitude. He was missed by so many people and we have such a tight-knit team, something that I haven't seen since I came to ASU, and everybody has surrounded him and told him that they loved him and that they are happy that he is back with his family. I think that was very reassuring and that he is happy to be back with his teammates."

DD: How close do you think Deantre was to taking either a temporary or permanent leave from football?

BE: "I don't know the truth about that. You hear all this stuff on a message board, but we have to remember that he went through something that was very psychologically traumatic. So when someone goes through something like that, then they may post something on Facebook or Twitter and expressing the emotions that they are feeling at that time. When I heard about that I wasn't too concerned. It was more in my opinion a natural reaction to what Deantre was experiencing. Again, we have no idea what this has felt for him emotionally.

"The more that I talked to him, and keeping in contact with his loved ones, there isn't a question in my mind that he still wants to play football. He's onboard 100 percent and right now he's about 2-3 weeks out from being ready to go. He has jumped all over his rehabilitation. He has to deal with his range of motion – this injury was almost like a hip flexor. But he is working his butt off to get healed as quickly as possible and he is excited for spring football. We will ease him into it and not force him into things that will make him uncomfortable. But he's fired up and ready to go."

Devils Digest: On the field, Lewis for the most part lived up to his accolades in his true freshman season. What are your thoughts on his performance?

Bryce Erickson: "I thought he did a tremendous job for us last year. He brings a different aspect, like Kyle Middlebrooks. They are very vertical runners and if you give them just a crease they have the ability to take it to the house, as Cameron does. But I thought Deantre's performance last year was phenomenal. He has a tremendous upside and he is just going to get better with experience. He will be a huge part of our offense this year.

"He knows he has some things to work on, just like Cameron did after his freshman year. He has to get more durable, more mentally stronger and those are things he is aware of and he has aimed to improve on before we start our 2011 season."

DD: Jamal Miles was aligned all over the field last season, including at times in the backfield. Do you see his role perhaps changing this season and lining up more often in the backfield or will he be featured more at wide receiver?

BE: "I think we will continue and utilize Jamal as much as possible. I think his primary position will probably at slot receiver. But we can do a lot of different things with Jamal. We can line him up at receiver and motion him in the backfield. We can line up in an empty set and motion him to take the handoff.

"With him and the other running backs we have some pretty deadly weapons that can take it to the house and defenses will have to be aware of where #32 is on the field at all times. He can hurt you that quick. He does a great job on special teams and the more punts he catches he will continue to get better because he has that game breaking ability and obviously we will get him involved in kickoff return as well. As a coaching staff our job is to find ways to get playmakers the ball and it's obvious that Jamal is one of our big time playmakers."

Devils Digest: James Morrison has been a player that has been lost in the shuffle with all the depth at this position. What are your expectations for him this year?

BE: "We are going to get into some running back sets this year that will be more conducive to James' talents. James is one of our hardest workers. He has great work ethic on the field and in the classroom. He's a physical and punishing running back, and he's by far our second best pass protector.

"It's hard for him to accept his role and that is how it should be because he is a competitor and he wants to be the number one guy. Those are the type of guys I like to coach. He will get an opportunity this spring to showcase his talents and we will try to get him involved in certain packages like short yardage or goal line. I have all the confidence in the world in James and I would have no problem putting him in the game for anything. He's a good runner and catches the ball from the backfield as well as any of those other running backs."

DD: Marcus Washington redshirted this past season but what were you able to see from him on the scout team?

BE: "Marcus didn't get the reps for us to see and evaluate what he is capable of doing. We saw flashes of him and he is a completely different runner than any of the other guys. He's such a big kid and he can be a punishing runner that takes two, three players to bring down. I am excited to see him in the spring and get him some reps. The biggest thing he has to improve on is the mental aspect of the game, knowing exactly what to do on the field. He will have to do extra film study and it's important for any of those running backs to be more a student of the game. I think he will be a great addition to our group."

Devils Digest: You mentioned running some different sets with James Morrison. How different do you think the running game will look this year compared to last?

BE: "I think we will do some more two-back running sets, where we keep both backs in instead of bringing in a tight end. I think James' ability is conducive to being a lead blocker or divide zone blocker, and also someone we can put in motion and give the football to. We will see some three-back inadvertent wishbone looks which is another formation that is very conducive to what James brings to the table."

Devils Digest: Let's shift to recruiting for a moment. You have been given the task of recruiting, among other territories, the Metro Phoenix area as well as the very fertile recruiting grounds of Norco and Corona in the Inland Empire. Can you talk about your recruiting approach concerning these critical recruiting regions?

BE: "I approach recruiting like I approach coaching. I am very competitive and I take it very personal. My work ethic is something that I pride myself on and knowing where guys are. I am spread out a little bit because I will spend a little time in Florida, and I still have San Diego too. <>P "But most importantly I am very fired up, very excited and really antsy to recruit the state of Arizona. There are a lot of good kids and coaches in this state and my number one goal is to develop relationships with these high school coaches. It will always be an open door policy with me and they have to understand that they can always come up to ASU for everything and anything. They can spend time with our offensive or defensive coaches or myself. I'm just trying to build relationships with these coaches and make sure we are all on the same page.

"You are going to have in-state kids that want to get out of state. That's why everyone recruits California, Texas and Florida. That is just a part of the game. Recruiting is all about developing relationships with the players. If you can get these players to trust you and you are genuine and honest and up front from the beginning – it only helps the recruiting process. That's something I pride myself on and that is the number one thing I focus on in recruiting. If you are successful in developing relationships with the player, their parents and their coaches I think you will be successful getting a kid to be interested in Arizona State. I want to get as many in-state schools to come up here and spend time at Arizona State with our coaches, come to our Junior Day, and just experience Arizona State.

"Even though we are in the same town, some of these kids don't have a real good clue about Arizona State. So if you get them and their coaches up to the campus, experience our facilities, our academic support staff…it's going to be pretty hard for those kids to want to leave the state. Especially after the type of season that I think we are going to have"

DD: One of the things that is very impressive about this group's performance is that how well they preformed for being so young and relatively inexperienced. You must be excited to see what this talented unit can do in 2011 with more experience under its belt?

BE: "I am and we can't forget about Kyle Middlebrooks. He started off as a receiver but he is a true running back. He brings a totally different dimension to the group. He's obviously small but he is physical, he's sudden, and he does a great job catching the ball out of the backfield. He is really a good screen runner. He will be in the mix as well. He has gotten much stronger and his pad level is very good. I'm excited about him.

"But the overall experience of this group is really going to allow us to speed up the tempo a little bit. Our run schemes are not that difficult and the kids don't have a lot to think about and that is very important in a position which is very instinctive. All our kids are very instinctive runners in their own way. So a year under their belt and under this offense is obviously going to be exciting to see starting in the spring. I'm fired up and can't wait for spring ball to start."


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