Q&A with Bo Graham

Arguably no position added more playmakers in Arizona State's 2014 recruiting class than the running backs group, which should see that unit continue to be at the forefront of an explosive offense this coming season. Devils Digest sat down with running backs Coach Bo Graham to discuss the new additions, and how they can benefit the Sun Devil offense, as well as review the position as a whole.

DevilsDigest: It was obviously a very successful recruiting class in terms of running backs. Let's talk about the three new additions to this unit and start with the recruit that was actually last to sign, Kalen Ballage

Graham: "Kalen looks like Jesse Owens. We never had a guy that looks like him. He can do so many different things. He's a big physical body, can do the dirty work but at the same time can carry the football with the best of them. A guy that size (6-3 215 lbs.) that runs a 10.6 in the 100 meters has the speed to go the distance. He can run routes out of the backfield and has great hands. Similar to some of the running backs we have he can line up at wide receiver and create mismatches on the perimeter.

"If I would compare Kalen to someone, I would compare him to Charles Clay who we coached at Tulsa and is now with the Miami Dolphins. But he's really a lot further along in his career than Clay was then. I never saw Clay even catch the ball on his high school film, it was a very basic offense. You see Kalen in those situations catching the ball and he is also a track guy which Clay wasn't, so he has that top end speed. Kalen does have more raw talent, is more progressed and can do a lot of different things for our offense."

DevilsDigest: A junior college transfer that is just as exciting with his playmaking capabilities is De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes. What does he bring to the table?

Graham: "He's a little taller than people give him credit for. He's about Marion Grice's height, and a player that is extremely explosive. If you look at the last couple of years here, we have done some great things on offense and defense. But special teams…being able to have a returner back there that people respect and fear – he gives us that. If you look at his film he can split out and run routes. You put Gump in one on one situations and you will be pretty successful. He is another guy that fits that mold.

"All three guys have great character, but I really like Gump's spirit. To see the impact he has made on his teammates at his junior college and listening to the feedback of the people there. He is a late bloomer because he was a small skinny running back when he first got to Lackawanna College, and was a walk on and after they finally gave him a few reps he showed everyone what he can do and was put on scholarship. His story, his character, talking to him on the phone…that is why I get excited when I talk about him. He will be a great teammate, and he will affect the people around him positively. He's a dangerous player and our offensive system is what in the end got him here. He saw what a JUCO running back like Marion Grice did here in such a short amount of time. Junior College guys know that they don't have that much time to make it happen and Gump knows that he can come in right now and he doesn't have to change anything and we don't have to change anything for him to have that type of success. We just did it with Grice and we told Gump that now we want to do this with you. This is why I think we are able to land the best junior college players in the nation."

DevilsDigest: And lastly Demario Richard was a prospect that was coveted by many in the conference…

Graham: "Demario is short and stocky and your prototypical Pac-12 running back that has been highly successful in this conference for the last ten years. He has a low center of gravity and is hard to tackle, but can also catch the ball and is very good in space. If he gets to the third level (of the defense) he can take it to the house. When we had that one day camp in Southern California that was the most impressive performance I ever saw a prospect in a camp. The guy didn't have to work out, but came out with a ton of energy. He's a football junkie and just from a body type standpoint when he gets here with Coach Griz he will be a monster. He lives in the weight room.

"In a high tempo offense, Demario Richard will be highly successful. Yards after contact, being able to run people over or make them miss…he has all those things that you look for."

DevilsDigest: Overall, I have to imagine that you couldn't be more pleased with how well this group has benefited in the 2014 class?

Graham: "We are excited and the best thing about the three guys coming in is their versatility and they're all talented in their own right. As coaches you can be a lot more creative when you have more talented guys you can put in the game, especially with how explosive of a player each of the new guys coming in is. We will able to be a lot more personnel oriented and get a lot of those running backs on the field at the same time. All three guys will do anything that you ask them to do, and we have to indentify their role and come up with a creative plan to get them all in the game. When you have more bullets you can do a lot more damage.

"It was definitely a challenge getting those guys and we were in some stiff competitions. But recruiting really depends on the relationships that you build and it really paid off for us."

DevilsDigest: Looking back at 2013 and with the production that the running game had, you must be very pleased with the running back position…

Graham: "If you look at the overall goal of taking care of the football, we did a better job this year and the Washington State game (eighth one of the year) was the first time we put the ball on the ground. But we definitely need to improve on that. We can be more explosive and I think not only the guys coming in but the guys coming back can help us with that. We did a pretty good job protecting the quarterback. We were leaning a lot on Marion this past year, and that is a big role to fill and it starts this spring. Marion led the country in scoring and was asked to do a lot and we still executed and played at a high level for the most part.

"Everybody makes a big deal out of D.J. (Foster) ‘is he a wideout, is he a running back?' We are a very non-traditional offense. If you're a running back on the perimeter on a bubble screen or just a screen that is just as good as a run play. So now you have D.J, on a one on one and he makes one guy miss…we really consider him a second running back whether he is in the backfield or lining up at wide receiver. The guys we have are extremely versatile, so being able to get the ball spread out and maximize production that is the goal."

DevilsDigest: Deantre Lewis had a roller coaster of a season even with limited reps. At times he made the most out of every touch but also had ball security issues. How would you rate his performance last year?

Graham: "What most people don't know is that Deantre towards the end of the season had a knee injury he was playing through. So when Marion went down Deantre was trying to help as much as possible. When he did put the ball on the ground he did also have a hand injury. So when I talk to Deantre I talk about consistency.

"Now you can sit here and talk about the negative, but when you pull up film of explosive plays he shows up more than anyone else on our team. So he is a guy that if we can develop consistency in his game he can be great. He has tremendous upside. Now with everything he has gone through as a person, he showed some flashes and now with Marion gone and him being a senior he knows his clock is ticking. So even though things didn't go as he planned he has thrown away that rearview mirror and he is only looking forward. If we can keep him at his best, he is darn good. He is very smart and knows our offense very well and can play multiple positions. I do trust him but consistency is the biggest thing for him."

DevilsDigest: Many times he was overshadowed by the great year Marion Grice had, but D.J, Foster turned in another solid season…

Graham: "Before Marion got hurt D.J. was second in the country in receiving yards by running backs. And when Marion went down it was great to see D.J. respond to our situation. The day after the UCLA game (where Grice was injured) seeing him come and work out and accepting that challenge…he runs the ball so effectively, and he wasn't used to carrying the ball that much. If you're not getting tackled 25, 30 times a game by playing on the perimeter it's hard getting used to that .He did a great job, took care of the football and was real productive.

"I wasn't surprised by what D.J. did. He was also fighting through a sprained knee from the Washington State game on. But I was confident and that guy is a champ and a proven competitor. He's a great Sun Devil and he has great pride in being a Sun Devil. He's a great teammate and I was very proud in how he stepped up towards the end."

DevilsDigest: Kyle Middlebrooks had to redshirt after tearing his ACL at the very end of the 2012 season. Is he full go for spring?

Graham: "He is full go. We tried to get him back before last year but he wasn't ready and we did the right thing from a health standpoint. In the last few months he has taken the knee brace off, and is doing very well with Coach Griz. So we will have a healthy Kyle in his natural position. This spring will be huge for Kyle. He has to go out there, prove himself and develop a role and that will give us a good idea of what he will do in the fall. I'm looking for big things from Kyle also on all special team units."

DevilsDigest: With all the new additions and obviously returning players too, how much does that allow you to change things up schematically?

Graham: "Last year we only had two running backs on the field and one of them was basically a wide receiver. This year we will be a lot more creative and that is one thing that Coach Norvell does such a great job and our philosophy is just putting the best guys on the field. If you have four running backs that are your most dangerous guys, you don't want three of them on the sidelines…the packaging is something that we will do different."

DevilsDigest: Even though you can never have too many running backs, is there any concern of giving enough touches to all the players at the position during the 2014 season?

Graham: "That is why we try and snap the football more than everyone else, we try to run 100 plays a game and try to get as many opportunities as we can. We will run what the defense will give us and a lot of what we do schematically depends on that. You have to adjust to that. By upgrading your personnel you limit what the defense can do, because you have more explosive players in certain spots. The more respect you get on the perimeter the easier it is to run the football and vice versa. So you will get a lot of production on offense.

"We do run a system where we can get the ball spread out. We will have to be creative, maybe put three running backs out there at the same time. Who knows? We have some very good wide receivers coming in too. You have options and you have to have depth. Last season everybody was taking about how our running back depth was so great, but we played two of them all the time and at the end of the year we almost ran out of guys. What gives you confidence going into the future is knowing that you have that depth."

DevilsDigest: Spring practice won't feature any of the new additions that will vastly change the composition of this unit come fall. Therefore, how will you approach those 15 practices?

Graham: "You just have to work with the guys you got and continue to progress them in our offense. We are going back studying what we have done and trying to make improvements for the future. Spring is the time where you can experiment with certain things, so we can fine tune some things. Getting Kyle caught up, progressing Deantre and D.J. and cross training all the backs are some of the things we'll do. We are in year three of our system. We have done a lot of different things in this offense, but we want to concentrate on the things we really do well and build off of that."

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