Surrounded by a gaggle of reporters following the team's practice, Todd Graham was of course peppered with questions on the topic. Still, he remained relatively stoic and short on additional details other than to say Bo Graham had taken another job opportunity locally and was appreciated for his efforts with the program over the last three-plus years.
Bo Graham’s new job was unclear at the time of publication.
“Our program is about relationships we love each other and we want the best for each other,” Todd Graham said. “It’s the same talk I gave the receivers when (former ASU wide receiver) Jaelen (Strong) decide to go to the draft.”
With the sudden change in coaching less than two weeks before the program's season opener against Texas A&M on Sept. 5, Todd Graham promoted from within, hiring Josh Martin, an offensive graduate assistant who has worked primarily with the offensive line under Chris Thomsen in his one year at ASU, to be an assistant coach.
“The good Lord has ways of opening doors for people and Josh is ready for that opportunity,” Todd Graham said. “One of the finest young coaches we’ve had since I’ve been here. He’ll work with the tight ends and 3-backs.”
Senior wide receiver D.J. Foster, who just made the official move to wide receiver this year after playing running back since his freshman year, told the media after practice it’s tough for him to see Bo Graham go, but at the end of the day, “life’s life and we all got stuff to take care of.”
“Coach [Todd] Graham sat us down at the end of practice and just told us that he stuff to handle at the end of the day and that’s all we needed to hear,” Foster said. “At the end of the day he’s family. We’re all family.”
With Bo Graham out and Josh Martin in and still learning the ropes, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and tight ends coach Chip Long will team up coaching the running backs and graduate assistant Taylor Kelly will do a lot more with quarterback Mike Bercovici and others at the position to get them ready for the season, according to Todd Graham.
Martin said the transition to assistant coach has been a smooth process and having to take over Bo Graham’s spot won’t personally be difficult.
“Won’t be tough at all,” Martin said. “We’ll be fine. Just fine. Next guy up. Just like we tell our guys, if a guy gets hurt it’s the next guy up so we’ll be just fine. We’re a family here, we’ll be just fine.”
Despite losing their coach of two years, ASU’s running backs are still strong at the position with sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage -- neither of whom was made available for interviews by ASU Tuesday -- being two of the offense’s biggest threats.
A 5-foot-10, 220 pound bowling ball, Richard led the Sun Devils with an average of 5.7 yards per carry last year and was the game MVP in the team's Sun Bowl win over Duke with four touchdowns, two rushing and two receiving. Ballage, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, is Todd Graham's pick for the most improved offensive player on the roster this off-season.
“Demario and Kalen, they know what do as well,” Foster said. “They obviously need someone to over see them, but they are very mature young men and they are handling business as well.”
SunDevilSource.com spoke with Bo Graham last Friday about the running backs group as a whole and the coach had a lot of praise about the players in the unit.
“Oh I’m excited about our group,” Bo Graham said. “You know coming in, we knew we were a young group and needed the experience and I think we’ve gotten that in camp. Got a great mixture of guys with great versatility and looking forward to this year.”
What might be the biggest challenge at running back moving forward is how to efficiently use each player and hone in each of their skills in order to have the most success offensively.
Richard and Ballage are the two feature backs in the offense, junior running back De'Chavon Hayes has been seeing a lot of time on the field, -- most recently being used as a boundary receiver in certain offensive situations -- freshman Jason Lewis came late to fall camp, but is a true physical threat with redshirting still up in the air, and sophomore Jacom Brimhall has been seeing the field mostly on special teams.
There’s no way to put every player on the field at the same time, but in Norvell’s offense, Bo Graham said 70 to 75 percent of the time in years' past, they’ve been in two running back sets and they try to run up to 100 plays a game, which gives more opportunities for players to get their touches.
“The offensive coordinator Mike Norvell knows what he is doing so we just follow the scheme and once he comes up with a scheme, that’s what we are running with,” Richard said. “No one in the backfield is selfish, so if someone else is tired I know that Jacom Brimhall or Kalen Ballage or Gump Hayes can come in and do the same thing I just did so I’m not really worried.”
Richard will move into a bigger role this season with Foster’s switch to wide receiver, but said this year isn’t about him. Instead, it’s about the team and trying to be the most prepared for the start of the team's season.
“I have an extra gear now, an extra step,” Richard said. “When I took it 98 yards in Payson (at Camp Tontozona), I don’t think I would have been able to do that last year. I would have been so tired so I just want to thank [ASU strength and conditioning coach, Shawn Griswold]. He made me put in all that extra work and now I got an extra gear to run. I would probably say my running is my most improved thing.”
In addition to his conditioning, Richard said he’s been working a lot in pass protection, specifically doing a lot of hand games. Bo Graham said they asked Richard to move out to the slot receiver more in two-back sets and he’s evolved in everything and from a mental to physical standpoint in that capacity.
For Ballage, ASU has asked him to be a two-way practice player, being a big presence at running back as well as playing limited reps defensively at Devil backer, primarily on third downs. Playing offense and defense may be difficult, but Bo Graham said they were confident in Ballage’s abilities to learn and adapt to everything thrown his way.
“He (Ballage) got good action last year, but I think now the game has slowed down for him.” Bo Graham said. “I think another year in the weight room, he's physically further along. He's a guy that needs to trust his speed. He's got elite breakaway speed. He's a real home run hitter and that's something he has really bought in to doing better.”
Ballage had some back issues that carried into last season, which limited his play, but said he’s ready to go this year and his mindset and attitude is finally in a good place to where he’s no longer upset about not playing and just ready to work.
“That was all on me at the end of the day,” Ballage said. “I was kind of injured and stuff like that, but my mind is in the right place, my heart is in the right place, and everything else follows after that.”
With Ballage and Richard leading the way, Hayes has been the Foster of the group in terms of where he will line up and how the offense will use him, according to Bo Graham.
“He's a guy we're trying to use similar to D.J. (Foster) in past years, he's moving around inside the box,” Bo Graham said. “He's a running back and wide receiver so he's moving around quite a bit and he has made marked improvement and he has really done well these past two scrimmages.”
Especially during Tuesday’s practice, Hayes was lined up as the boundary wide receiver for the entire team period media got to observe. With Hayes kicked out to the perimeter, Richard ran as the feature back and ASU had Foster and senior wide receiver Devin Lucien lined up on the field side with junior tight end Kody Kohl also on the field.
With a year under his belt, Hayes said he finally isn’t just playing “off talent,” but instead he knows the offensive schemes and it’s finally coming naturally to him.
“My goal is I just want to put the team in situations to win ball games,” Hayes said. “I tell myself all the time, I want to lead the nation in all-purpose yards. I want to make sure my team is on the same page and we all the same goal to get that national championship.”
New players to the system and perhaps on the same learning curve Hayes was on last year are Lewis and freshman Nick Ralston. Lewis was a late arrival to camp, officially cleared by the NCAA to join the team on Aug. 10. Comparatively, Ralston joined the team in the spring and is hoping to use that to his advantage.
“Coming in the spring definitely helped me,” Ralston said. “Just stepping in and learning the offense and everybody helped me, whether it’s a running back or a 3-back. Coming into this year I feel confident.”
Ralston, who has worked at fullback and running already this year, shifted to the tight end group in practices after ASU returned from Camp Tonzona to also learn the 3-back position.
Ralston, who was called “abnormal” by Bo Graham due to the versatility he’s shown only being a freshman, called the 3-back the hardest to play out of the three just because of the alignments, formation and footwork, but his approach is unwavering.
“You just got to think like you’re like a bull,” Ralston said about his role as a lead blocker. “You got to get the ball in the end zone. You got to treat it like you’re running the ball and if it’s Kalen, D-Rich or Gump, whoever is running the ball, my main goal is to create a hole for them.”
With Ralston progressing and the running backs group as a whole already strong, Bo Graham said as of Friday that Lewis’s redshirt was still up in the air. But the first thing the team needs to sort out before that decision will be made is who will be on special teams.
If Lewis could find himself useful in a special teams situation this year, it might be his best bet to also reach the field as a running back in some capacity and not use his redshirt.
At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Lewis said he’s definitely ready to be on the field and wouldn’t want to redshirt if at all possible.
“I feel like physically and everything, with our running backs, I feel like I can just go in whenever they get out of the game,” Lewis said. “I feel like I should be able to go in and just create the spark that they create. Having about five running backs, me going in after a few get tired, it just speeds up the intensity really.”
Richard and Ballage in particular have been helping Lewis learn the offense and Lewis said being able to play with athletes the caliber of Richard and Ballage is an amazing experience. Lewis especially compares himself to Ballage, seeing similarities in their speed and physicality.
“It’s just like being thrown into the fire,” Lewis said of the learning curve. “You’re trying to get as much information in as little time as you can so every time you’re not in you’re just listening and listening so when you get in you know your play.”