Q&A with coach Bryce Erickson

ASU's running backs group saw its top players miss various amounts of time in fall camp. However, some seldom used members of this unit capitalized on their opportunity and were some of the camp standouts. Running backs coach, Bryce Erickson, liked what he saw from his pupils and gave Devils Digest his assessment of the running backs, and the latest on injured running back Deantre Lewis.

Devils Digest: Let's talk about the performance of the running backs in camp, starting with Cameron Marshall

Bryce Erickson: "Cameron looks a lot more agile and a little quicker. Prior to his ankle injury (during camp) he seemed real comfortable with everything we were doing. He's slowly getting back into the groove of things after missing two weeks. The last few days he has shown signs of getting back closer to 100 percent. He understands our running schemes, his footwork has improved, he has good patience and he's seeing things a lot better than he did a year ago.

"We don't have a lot of complex pass protections, but Cameron is incredibly locked in when as far as that is concerned. He catches the ball very well from the backfield and the screen game is such a huge part of what we do on offense. He will be a 20 plus touch player for us this year. He has been a leader for us and has done a great job with the young guys helping them understand on and off the field what it takes to be successful. He's going to be a big part of our success this year."

DD: Kyle Middlebrooks had a great spring, missed a few days in camp but overall had a great performance in the last few weeks. Can you talk about his play?

BE: "It's funny how things work out as far as who was going to be our number 2 guy. With Cameron going down, Kyle's reps just shot straight up. From what I saw from him, I wouldn't have any problem at all giving him the ball 20 times a game as well, Down the line he will definitely compete for the starting job at the running back position. He brings a completely different look at this position. He's real quick, he's hard to find in the backfield. We tried him out at slot last year when he first came in, but running back is his natural position.

"He's really done a great job working on the things he needed to improve on. One of those things was pass protection. He isn't the biggest guy but he knows his assignments well and fights with all his heart to get the job done. He has tremendous speed and quickness, does a great job catching the ball well out of the backfield. We will utilize him as much as possible and I'm excited about him."

DD: Just like last year, Jamal Miles will line up in the backfield in addition to being a slot receiver. But in terms of his running back skills, what did you like about his camp performance?

BE: "With Deantre Lewis going down, we will utilize him in some situations at running back. Jamal in my opinion is the best athlete on the offense. He's so natural in everything that he does. He comes in and does running back reps and his footwork and vision are unbelievable. We have no problem giving him the football quite a bit. We will utilize him in our ‘20' packages with our two backs. Our philosophy is that we would like to get the ball in Jamal Miles' hands as much as possible because he is that dynamic of a football player. I have been very pleased with him."

DD: James Morrison also missed some chunks of time in camp, but when he did practice what did you rate his play?

BE: "His shoulder injury kept him out a little bit, but he had a real good fall camp and did great in our first scrimmage. He's a guy that has tremendous work ethic. He thought about transferring and I'm glad he stayed. I trust him and have no problem playing him in a game. He's just as good as Cameron is in our pass protection schemes. He's physical, his technique is really good. He lost a little weight and he's a lot quicker. Something he needed to work on before was his pad level, but the more experienced he became the better he did. He's a warrior and a big time leader on this football team."

DD: Marcus Washington was probably the biggest fall camp surprise on offense. I would have to assume that you have been very pleased with his performance…

BE: "He's the player that has improved the most through this camp. He has done a tremendous job and it made my heart feel good to see the strides that he made even from spring football. The more reps he got, the more comfortable he was. In the spring and last year he was so cerebral and had a paralysis by analysis. Now that he is more comfortable with his footwork, his responsibilities, and the passing game he has become more instinctive which is probably the most important variable when it comes to playing running back. He's a big physical back, he has long arms and he just needs to be more mentally consistent. He does run kind of high, but when he gets his pads down he's really hard to tackle. So he has a little bit of ways to go but I'm excited about his future. "

DD: Another pleasant camp surprise had to be walk-on R.J. Robinson

BE: "He's very mentally consistent and just a great running back. If he would have gone somewhere else and not have all these backs in front of him he could be a starter there. But he always approaches the game like he's a starter. He puts in a lot of time in the weight room and film room. He's pretty physical for his size."

DD: Deantre Lewis was a victim of a stray bullet shooting in February which damaged his hamstring. He didn't practice in the spring and just started conditioning only drills with the team last week. What is his current status?

BE: "I know when Deantre went down a lot of people were worried about the running backs, but I have all the confidence in them. Now that Deantre is back it has been a blessing. Having him here physically and seeing him smile is great. He's progressing really well and I won't be surprised if we see him later in the season. We'll determine that based on the treatments he's getting and his progression and then we'll be able to determine what role he will have, or whether he will play this year."

DD: Is there a cutoff of how many games he would have to miss before you decide to redshirt him?

BE: "That's hard to predict because you never know what is going to happen with these other running backs. With his type of injury, you just don't know how long it will take to heal. I know that when he left in the spring and he spent a lot of time back home in California doing rehab, he has come back in way better of a shape and progressed way more with his injury than we had anticipated.

"I'd say right now he's 75, closer to 80 percent healthy. When he gets in the 80 percent range then we will give him some reps and see what he can do. But I don't doubt that the young man's number one goal is to play this year and help this team to win a national championship. He is doing everything in his power, our trainers and strength coaches are doing everything in their power to get this young man ready. He'd dedicated and antsy to get back on that football field."

DD: Is there anything different we can expect this season from the running game in terms of new schemes?

BE: "We added a few new concepts, but we are such an up tempo offense that we want our guys to be comfortable in what we are doing. In this offense you don't add a lot. You might dress some things up a little bit. For the most part we are inside zone stretch team. We'll run a little bit of a draw, have some tight end packages and power formations.

"For the running backs with their footwork and their technique you can tell how much more comfortable they are. So we don't want to add a lot of stuff and confuse our players. We want to keep on doing the things that will make this offense successful. Our running backs are good at what they are doing now and we'll just continue to improve on what they are already doing. Our offensive line is great and we all have really gelled as an offense. Week by week some things could change schematically depending on what defense we face, but we won't really change a lot of stuff."

DD: You talked about two tight ends and power formations, and those schemes would probably come in handy mostly in the red zone – an area where the offense had struggled last season. Do you feel that the offense should do better in that aspect in 2011?

BE: "Absolutely. You see a team like Oregon and others that are spread zone read teams, they struggle some when they get into the 10-yard line because everything condenses a little bit. But I think we have the ability to jump in and out different personnel groups and that will help us tremendously inside the red zone and short yardage situations. We will have a completely different look that will benefit us."

DD: As the season opener approaches what are some of the aspects for the running backs group as a whole that you would like to see improvement in?

BE: "Pass protection would be the number one thing. I think we have to be better red zone runners, having better pad level. We have to become better short yard runners. We need to make sure we stay consistent in what we are doing. A lot of stuff we do it's all about consistency. When we become consistent the backs don't have to think as much, just react to the things they see and run the football with their eyes."

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