PAYSON, Ariz. – The Arizona State offense showed exactly how deep it is at running back in the scrimmage to end the week at Camp Tontozona Saturday.
In what has become a Tontozona tradition, the team’s feature running back, this year it is sophomore Demario Richard, saw limited action on the field.
Coach Todd Graham was pleased with his backs.
“I think our guys know that’s what our identity wants to be is be a team that takes and runs the ball downhill and knocks people off the football,” Graham said. “We’re at a point now from a development stand point, we feel like we can do that. So that was something that was encouraging today.”
Richard only had four rushes for 37 yards Saturday.
Importantly, Richard did not suffer any injury Saturday or this week at Camp Tontozona. ASU offensive coaches have limited the touches of star players like Richard in the past. The coaches they did not want to risk their feature running back getting injured in the last scrimmage of the year.
Hayes was the first running back to impress the crowd of more than 6,100 fans watching the scrimmage. He lined up in the slot receiver position, took a hand-off from senior quarterback Mike Bercovici on a jet sweep and ran up field for over a 10-yard gain.
Then offensive coordinator Mike Norvell moved him to running back on the next play. Bercovici gave Hayes the ball two more times and Hayes finished the drive with about an 8-yard touchdown run.
Hayes said that is Norvell’s style of play calling.
“That’s definitely how he rolls,” Hayes said. “He goes tempo offense so once you get it, just be looking for it to get it again because we’re trying to move the offense and tire that defense as quickly as possible. So once he gave it to me on that jet sweep, I knew it was going to come right back to me. So I was ready.”
Hayes gained 39 yards on only three rushes and scored one rushing touchdown.
Later in the scrimmage, Norvell continued his repetitive play calling. This time, it was Ballage who received the ball multiple times.
Ballage got the ball three straight times in the red zone and finished off the third carry with about a 2-yard touchdown run.
The sophomore running back was the star of ASU’s spring ball practices and took that momentum into the fall practices.
This trip up to Camp Tontozona was a lot different for Ballage in his sophomore year.
His first year at ASU, Ballage spent all of the Camp Tontozona practices on the sidelines, without pads on and a backwards snapback on his head instead of a helmet because he was sidelined with a back injury.
This year, Ballage has fully recovered but that is not the most important difference between his freshman and sophomore year.
“Really just my mindset and my attitude [have changed],” Ballage said. “There were times last year I was kind of upset. I wasn’t getting able to play and that was all on me at the end of the day. I was kind of injured and stuff like that. My mind’s in the right place and my heart’s in the right place and everything else follows after that.”,p> Ballage had 74 rushing yards on 10 carries and scored two rushing touchdowns. He also caught two passes for 14 yards.
The scrimmage’s leading rusher was actually true freshman Jason Lewis who had 89 total yards on nine rushes. Lewis had the offensive highlight of the day when the 245-pounder violently broke several tackles to bust a 62-yard touchdown run.
Norvell addressed his challenge present to get all of his running backs involved in the offense as much as possible.
“We have a lot of versatility,” Norvell said. “Guys in the backfield can all catch the ball. Guys at receiver can all run the ball. So those are things that as long as we can get guys in those one-on-one matchups and the quarterback puts the ball in the right place, I think we’re going to be just fine.”
When a team has an intra-squad scrimmage, a big play for the offense means a mistake for the defense.
The ASU offense was able to connect on some deep passes to its receivers Saturday. Junior wide receiver Tim White caught a 53-yard pass and sophomore wide receiver Ellis Jefferson had a 49-yard catch.
On White’s catch, Bercovici saw the ASU defense was going send a lot of bliters, called an audible and threw the pass down field to White who had the ASU safeties trailing behind him.
The ASU defense is not going to change its scheme. Graham is going to call a lot of blitzes and that is going to put significant pressure on the starting safeties to maintain control over the top.
Safeties coach Chris Ball said his safeties understand their responsibility.
“That’s what we want,” Ball said. “We want that pressure and we want it in our hands. These kids know that. They know that and they battle. They know that at the end of the day if we don’t give up any cheap ones, one play touchdowns and keep everything inside and in front then we’re going to win the game.”
The boundary safety -- designated as the Bandit by ASU -- position is locked down with senior safety Jordan Simone as the returning starter.
Sophomore Armand Perry has been taking the first team reps at the field safety position throughout Camp Tontozona.
Perry knows the caliber of player he is trying to replace.
“I love it and I embrace it,” Perry said. “That’s the main thing everybody is going to talk about who’s filling in [for] Damarious. But, I feel confident in myself and I believe it’s a big advantage for me just to get my name out there and to get more focus and just to ball out for my team.”
Perry played cornerback his freshman year at ASU, could not practice in the spring because of an injury and therefore has only played the safety position at the college level for a couple weeks.
Ball gave Perry credit for learning the position quickly especially the verbal calls he has to make as the quarterback of the defense.
Ball said there is still a fierce competition in practice as other players compete for Perry’s spot.
Sophomore safety James Johnson and sophomore defensive back Chad Adams have been getting second and third team reps behind Perry. Johnson wears a Tillman jersey in practice for his all-around approach on and off the field and entered camp getting the first-team reps at field safety but has worked primarily with the second ground at Bandit in the last week.
The ASU safeties will be under a lot of pressure this season so the defense can put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The ASU defense might need to send more linebackers and defensive backs on blitzes than ever before this season.
At Camp Tontozona, the base defensive line has solidified itself somewhat.
In the scrimmage the Sun Devils’ base defense was a traditional 4-man front with junior linebacker Ami Latu at the 1-technique, sophomore defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood at the 3-technique, senior defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry at the 5-technique and true freshman defensive lineman JoJo Wicker at the Devil linebacker with his hand in the ground.
Cherry said he believes the defensive line unit’s pressure will improve as the season goes on.
“We always got room to improve,” Cherry said. “We’re working hard right now. It’s still early. We still got so much to learn. As of right now, I think we’re pretty good. I’m so comfortable with the team right now and I think we’re going to be pretty solid with the pass rush.”
The ASU defense went into its “Okie” formation a lot during the scrimmage.
When the defense is running Okie, the coaches substitute one defensive lineman for another linebacker. Therefore, junior Spur linebacker Laiu Moekiola, senior WILL linebacker Antonio Longino, junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso are all on the field. Sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun also comes into the game as a blitzing Devil linebacker.
Calhoun recorded one tackle for loss and Longino got one sack in the scrimmage Saturday.