Spring evaluation: RB preparedness grades

From a talent standpoint, Arizona State is loaded at running back even with D.J. Foster moving to running back. The improvement of Kalen Ballage was a major spring storyline.

1. Demario Richard (sophomore) -- Though he was the youngest scholarship player on the Arizona State roster last year, Richard showed a capability well beyond his years. High level running backs are often seemingly ready-made to play at the college level and beyond and Richard falls into that category. From his first day in Tempe as a 17-year-old, Richard was already a very strong 205-210 pounds at 5-foot-10 and a natural and instinctive inside zone style running back. He's quick to reach the line of scrimmage and elusive in an interior gap but also has the ability to break arm tackles as well as any ASU running back in recent years because of his low center of gravity and his powerful physical construction and how well he keeps his feet moving through contact.

Richard gets on the linebacker level quickly, which creates extra stress and leads to anticipation mistakes by defenders. He has shifty feet that transition well to space, and has a combination of elusiveness and tackle-breaking that makes him very capable of breaking big gainers. HIs powerful legs frequently enables yards after contact even when he's relatively wrapped up by defenders, and it often takes help to bring him to the ground. Richard also runs effectively outside the tackle box, as his vision and instincts work well on stretch runs and he has the ability to plant his foot and quickly transition vertically with impressive suddenness for his size. His ball security is great and borderline excellent, not just because of his strength, but how he secures it in a variety of situations.

A true full service three-down player, Richard is a very physical and wiling leverage blocker on passing downs, with good blitz identification for a young back. In ASU's two-back formations, Richard effortlessly slides into the near slot role and becomes a quality receiver, with sure hands and a knack for gaining lateral separation and slipping defensive backs and overmatched linebackers at the line of scrimmage. Overall, Richard is a solid NFL caliber running back prospect despite not having great speed. Preparedness Grade: 4.5 / Potential Grade: 5

2. Kalen Ballage (sophomore) -- The last few months have clearly been hugely significant in the development of Ballage, a player who certainly looked the part physically upon arrival at ASU, but had some deficiencies that needed to be addressed. Ballage hurt his back early in camp last year and needed to work on developing his core strength and flexibility in order to better take advantage of the rare and breathtaking speed he possesses for such a big running back. Fast forward a few months and Ballage has gained 15 pounds, now 227 pounds at 6-foot-3, and he's clearly gotten stronger and at least a little more limber.

Last season, Ballage showed a tendency to want to bounce outside when carrying the football even at times when it's not how the play was blocked. When he did run inside, Ballage wasn't as imposing as his size would seem to indicate; not a player who would get a lot of yards after contact due to his high profile as a vertical rusher and average strength for his size. In the spring, Ballage showed much better physicality as a rusher. He broke more tackles as a percentage of his runs, and became a more determined between the tackles rusher. Ballage is extremely fast in the open field, so when he's able to access he second level on the inside, he has a tremendous game breaking capability now that he's bigger and stronger, as linebackers often won't be much bigger and safeties almost never will be. He is simply too big of a guy to always be trying to gain the edge unless in plays that explicitly call for it. Moving forward, Ballage will still benefit from increased work on his flexibility, lowering his center of gravity to some degree and playing with better pad level as an interior rusher. He already likes to drop his shoulder and deliver a blow, but because he's so tall and angular as a rusher, it's not easy to do. With a little better overall run posture he could really be punishing. Ballage also had a lot of success catching the ball in the flat being elusive in space for his size, and he really improved as a pass protector as well during the spring. Preparedness Grade: 3.5 / Potential Grade: 4.5

3. De'Chavon Hayes (junior) -- Speed and open field playmaking ability are Hayes' calling cards. On any given play he can beat one or more defensive players just based on sheer athleticism and find his way in the end zone. With Richard and Ballage in the backfield, Hayes' playing opportunity is going to come primarily in two-back formations operating in the near slot role primarily as a wide receiver. This is the role D.J. Foster excelled at several years ago when ASU had Marion Grice in the backfield, and Hayes is no less of an athlete than Foster. In fact, he's probably faster and no less elusive in the open field.

But Hayes has a lot of work to do in order to fully unblock his potential. He's had a tendency to struggle to get lined up correctly, particularly as ASU increases the tempo of its no huddle offense. He's also got to become more technically savvy, as defenders are more athletic, stronger and more sound at this level than junior college. It's also going to be different playing in this role than junior college, where he was able to be a primary running back and often was able to get to the second level untouched due to impressive blocking ahead of him and a sound scheme. When Hayes does move into the backfield, he runs tougher and is harder to bring down inside than one might think from looking at his 5-foot-10, 185 pound frame. He will benefit from adding some additional size. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 4

4. Nick Ralston (freshman) -- It was a bit of a surprise to see Ralston working at running back on the first day of spring football because ASU coach Todd Graham told local beat writers a month earlier the true freshman would start out at linebacker. Quickly though, Ralston showed he has the potential to provide ASU with an interesting skill set that differentiates himself to some degree from others who could factor into the depth chart. Though he has limited speed, Ralston has good quickness for a 220-pounder, and does a nice job of shifting laterally and quickly identifying which blocks to exploit as a ball carrier. He's rarely found in the wrong location and just seems to have a knack for sliding through the line of scrimmage.

The vision and quickness Ralston possesses is further aided by his excellent low hip structure and forward lean as a rusher. He has the ability to punish linebackers because his pad level is ideal and he has impressive lower body power and size. Ralston is also a pass catching threat nearer the line of scrimmage, a high upside blocker around the pocket, and a very capable lead blocker when operating as a full back. That may be his best upside position, as he has a body type that would seem to indicate he can play at upwards of 250 pounds. In some ways he is reminiscent of a young Mike Karney, the former ASU fullback who played in the NFL. Preparedness Grade: 2.5 / Potential Grade: 3

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American level performer

4: First/second team all-league level performer

3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer

2: Fringe Pac-12 performer

1: Non-Pac-12 level performer

Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.

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