Middlebrooks ready for the challenge

Preseason training camp is usually a time for players to make one last impression on coaches before the season starts. Sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks has used the opportunity to adjust to his new full-time position while also making a case for increased playing time in the Sun Devils' backfield.

Nearly two full weeks into fall camp, the Sun Devils wrapped up their morning practice a bit early on Friday in anticipation of Saturday's team scrimmage. Middlebrooks, despite injuring his ankle in the camp's first couple of days, has seen an increased work load lately, both a product of his on-field production and a recent rash of minor injuries to some of the other Sun Devil running backs.

"Practice went pretty well today," said the speedy back. "It felt good being in helmets and shoulder pads. It helps kind of save our legs.

"My ankle feels good," he added. "I've been doing all that rehab and everything. It's all good though, they did it while I was out, so I guess I just got to pick up the slack."

Middlebrooks' strong showing this fall comes on the heels of what may have been his coming out party in the spring, where he spent a considerable amount of time at the running back position, toting the rock for the second team offense. His transition from receiver to running back has helped ease the minds of many Sun Devil fans while teammate Deantre Lewis continues to rehab from a shooting incident over the offseason.

The uncertainty of Lewis' availability is something that has affected Middlebrooks preparation for the upcoming season, but is without a doubt a challenge he feels comfortable handling.

"It's been affecting me since back in the spring, when the incident happened," he said after practice. "It's just like, things happen and people have to step up. Now I've just got to step my game up to another level." As a freshman last season, Middlebrooks saw minimal time at running back, instead being using more as a receiver and special teams player. For the year, he handled only seventeen rushing attempts, accumulating 82 yards and scoring one touchdown.

However, coming out high school, Middlebrooks was rated as the 19th best all-purpose back and insists that the running back position is one he's familiar with and confident he can play at a high level.

"Well it's something that I've always done, going back to high school," remarked Middlebrooks. "I kind of flip-flopped last year, but it's really just what I have at heart. I'm really comfortable though playing this season at running back.

"I'm just trying to get my mind right and knowing that I'll be able to be out on the field a lot more and making sure I get my pass protections down. I'm just trying to learn the offense as well as I can and pick up all my assignments."

In anticipation of the expected position change and inevitable extra work load, Middlebrooks, along with a number of his Sun Devil teammates, committed himself to a rigorous workout routine during the offseason. Aside from just conditioning, something that he'll most certainly need to be given his ever-expanding role in this high octane Sun Devil offense, the 5'8", 177 pound back put in some time in the weight room as well.

"We were out here doing a lot of conditioning this summer," he said. "And then we were always putting in a little overtime just by running A Mountain, South Mountain and everything. So I had to put in the extra effort and get in the gym, and just get in a couple extra workouts too."

As most fans know though, a running back and quarterback are really only as good as the offensive line they operate behind. Fortunately for the Sun Devils, they return all five starters from last season's squad, bringing with them both excellent experience and chemistry, while being motivated to silence their critics. For Middlebrooks, it's an offensive line he hopes can create a few holes for him to explode through.

"It's great," said an enthused Middlebrooks. "We have a great offensive line. They're out there working hard, all of the linemen. It just feels good to have a core of linemen like that to run behind."

While there may be no speculation about who will be named the starting quarterback for the Sun Devils, there is however some concern in regards to Brock Osweiler's lack of experience. Following the opener on September 1st against UC-Davis, the schedule quickly becomes grueling with a tough slate of both non-conference and conference match-ups. Obviously an effective running game would help ease some of the responsibility for Osweiler, while helping the team navigate through the season's first few weeks.

"With these teams that we've got coming in, we're going to have a stronger work load," commented Middlebrooks. "But we're all going to be really prepared for the season; the receivers, running backs, quarterbacks. We're all out here hungry and really motivated to get out there and play these games."

For now, it appears as though Middlebrooks will be lining up behind junior Cameron Marshall on the Sun Devil depth chart. Coaches and fans are hoping that the speedster will complement the physical style of Marshall with some added quickness, similar to the role Lewis played last season. When asked what he expects of himself this season, a humble Middlebrooks was quick to point out where he still needs to improve before getting into any goals for himself.

"(Running backs) Coach Bryce Erickson always has us come up with some personal goals to write down and turn into him at the beginning of the season. He gives us a copy of it, and we just kind of go off that and just try to strive and be better every day. We try to make less mental mistakes and learn our assignments."

"I'm really just working on my pass protection and trying to read the offensive linemen's blocks. And just working on basically everything, blocking, catching the ball, doing our screen routes, swings and those different types of things."

The Sun Devils are currently a little less than three weeks away from real competition, and the sluggishness in Friday's practice showed a tired team looking forward to seeing fresh faces to play against. Middlebrooks knows that this is the time for him and his teammates to rise to challenge and push each other to get better because unlike years past, the Sun Devils will be bearing the weight of some pretty lofty expectations.

"Well they (media) have high expectations for us and we've just got to go out there and prove them that we're really out here, grinding and ready for this Pac 12 South and conference championship," he said. "We just want to show everyone what we have.

"I just can't wait," he added. "I think about it everyday. That first game, that first kickoff, it's on!"

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