Players battling for roles at running back

Arizona State is talented but somewhat inexperienced in its backfield, with a heavy reliance on players with one or no years of experience. But that doesn't mean the group won't make a lot of plays.

Now that Arizona State senior D.J. Foster has shifted over to the wide receiver position, the backfield is left wide open to a group of young and hungry running backs ready to take the field.

Heading the group is sophomore running back Demario Richard, who rushed for 478 yards, had 156 receiving yards, and scored a total of eight touchdowns last season.

With Richard appearing to be the feature back going into the 2015 season, the battle for the next two spots on the depth chart are up for grabs between sophomore Kalen Ballage, redshirt junior De'Chavon “Gump” Hayes and freshman Nick Ralston.

Each have something they bring to the table, but their biggest challenge will be their youth or inexperience.

“From a coaching standpoint, it's going to be the most challenging here for me because I don't have as much experience in the room,” ASU running backs coach Bo Graham said in an off-season conversation. “My two (returning) freshmen (Richard and Ballage) are going to have to step up and be the leaders and Gump's a [junior college] guy, he's older, but he's going to be learning, he's going to be learning a lot. So I gotta get them ready.”

At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Ballage has the build to potentially become a physical and hard-hitting running back, as last year he ran for 126 yards and scored three touchdowns as a freshman.

The issues that arise for Ballage is even though he looks the part and has that natural athleticism, he’s still transitioning to become a natural running back.

“I know he looks really strong but there are some deficiencies: core strength, getting in there squatting and cleaning, Demario is well ahead of him in those regards,” Bo Graham said. “And he does have some bad habits but nothing he does you can't coach…Kalen has a lot of work to do catching the ball and some thing but it's just harder because he's tall and so long. But when he breaks, he's really fast for his size.”

Ballage said spring practice has been going good for him so far, with the offseason giving him time to study up and get into the weight room to get stronger and improve his technique.

“For me I kind of had a back injury last year at the beginning of the season so I didn’t power clean or squat or anything like that for six or seven months so I was kind of out of it there so I kind of focused on getting stronger and my technique,” Ballage said.

Mentally, Ballage said he is improving his ability to recognize blitzes and pick up pass blocking.

Towards the end of Tuesday’s practice, Ballage got his ankle rolled up on which sent him to the sidelines for the remainder of practice. Ballage said afterwards his ankle was fine and he should be ready to go on Thursday.

With the slight injury to Ballage, the importance of having a loaded backfield was on display as Ralston got most of the second-team reps and Hayes broke one out of the backfield.

Not having a player like Foster obviously hurts the running backs group as a whole, but moving Foster to the wide receiver position is more beneficial to the team in general given the departure of Jaelen Strong to the NFL and loss of Cameron Smith for the season to knee surgery.

“We miss him (Foster) back here in the backfield, but at the same time, we can get more weapons on the field now,” Ballage said. “There’s a lot of times where me and D-Rich and D.J are all on the field at the same time, in comparison to last year it would only be two of us and now it’s three of us on the field at the same time so that’s pretty exciting.”

In addition to Ballage and Richard, Hayes is another explosive player according to ASU head coach Todd Graham.

"With Gump we have to get stop signs in the end zones to make sure he doesn't run into the end zone bleachers because once he breaks he's hitting it,” Todd Graham said after Tuesday’s practice. “I've challenged him. It's really hard. He came here, had to redshirt last year. That's not because he couldn't play, it's because he had to redshirt by rule. He had to sit out and now we are challenging every day. When you're the best player where you come from you're not used to it, but he has responded well. He's flat out gotten better and we've got so many explosive players on offense, it's definitely exciting, and he's one of them."

Hayes had one of those explosive plays during Tuesday’s practice when he exploded from the line of scrimmage, hitting the gap and breaking free taking it all the way to the end zone.

Hayes said his main goal during spring ball is to stay mentally focused and get the plays down before he can play at full speed.

“I’ve very versatile so I feel like my speed, my ability to play running back, receiver, kick return, I want to be one of those guys when the coaches watch film they all know where I’m going to line up when they play against me,” Hayes said.

Hayes said he calls himself, Richard and Ballage the “Elite Three,” and said as a group, they have the versatility and abilities to come at the defense in a variety of ways.

“All of us bring something different to the table,” Hayes said. “D-Rich played last year so he got the plays down. He can be our bruiser guy too and he can line up at receiver. Me, I can line up at receiver and I bring speed to the table. With Kalen Ballage, he’s like what 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and he’s fast too.”

Having to sit out last year and redshirt, Hayes got to learn a lot from Foster watching him and being under his wing. It was an added bonus that Hayes had the extra year to hit the weight room and get bigger and stronger as well.

“I look up to D.J. a lot,” Hayes said. “He played this position last year and now receiver and I talk to him a lot and ask him about details of how to better my game, what I can do as a running back and what can I do at receiver and I try to go to him for all the tips I need.”

Both Todd Graham and Bo Graham have compared Hayes to Foster with their similar styles of play.

“Gump is a lot like D.J., so now you move D.J. out, you've got Gump in that slot role, you can move guys around and have all this versatility,” Bo Graham said. “And Gump surprised me in bowl practices because even though he is smaller he has some pop and can run inside the box. Usually the fast guys don't collision a lot but he's from up in the Northeast and he's tough.”

Notes

  • Freshman offensive tackle Steve Miller, who was previously in green during Saturday’s practice due to a foot injury, was back in a maroon practice jersey and practiced at second-team left tackle during team periods.

  • Sophomore linebacker Christian Sam was again with the first-team taking reps at the SAM position over junior linebacker Salamo Fiso during defensive install, but during team period Fiso got the first-team reps over Sam.

  • Redshirt freshman wide receiver Jalen Harvey got first-team reps at the 2-reciever position for the first time this spring.

  • Senior safety Jordan Simone and senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington wore the ASU flame helmets during practice again on Tuesday. After practice, Todd Graham said the helmets were not replacements of the Tillman jersey, instead the helmets are awarded to players who are working hard on the field and off regarding football only.

    “It has everything to do with football,” Todd Graham said. “You’re studying football film, you’re giving us in all the effort. You’re winning on the football field.”

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