Veteran running backs providing stability to ASU offense

Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage provide Arizona State with stability on an offense that otherwise is very much in transition.

With a new offensive line, new quarterback, new offensive coordinator, and new running backs coach at Arizona State this spring, the team's veteran running backs group has become the stabilizing backbone of the Sun Devils’ offense this spring.

Led by experienced juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the running backs have earned praise from ASU head coach Todd Graham for reliably strong play.

“There’s not any position on the field right now that has played any better than what our running back position has played this spring,” Graham said. “I think every guy there has gotten better. (Redshirt freshman) Nick (Ralston) right now, you got Demario and Kalen both are continuing compete with each other, compete to be the best. Really like the things we see there and obviously want to get both those guys on the field.”

Last year, the duo of Richard and Ballage combined for 1,751 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns with Richard leading the Sun Devils in rushing yards with 210 carries for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns. Richard also scored three receiving touchdowns.

Richard took the bulk of the carries for ASU in 2015 with Ballage missing the first three games of the season due to mononucleosis. Playing in his first game of 2015 against USC on Sept. 26, Ballage tallied nine carries for 30 yards.

Ballage – 6-foot-3, 230 pounds – produced fewer than 60 rushing yards in his next three games before breaking out against Oregon on Oct. 29 when he had 12 carries for 127 yards alongside Richard's 19 carries for 135 yards.

It’s evident Ballage and Richard will be two mainstays in ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s offense this fall and Richard said so far, he’s been excited about the offensive front and how the group will produce this year.  

“I’m happy we got a younger, more athletic offensive line because now it’s just like I said if I’m running down the sidelines and I see (redshirt freshman offensive lineman) Steve Miller right there and he’s blocking the corner that just gives me one cut and go to open space so I’m okay with that,” Richard said.

In addition to a young offensive line, Richard said new ASU running backs coach John Simon is fairly young himself and is so active sometimes that players will “have to tell him to cool it,” but they enjoy the energy he brings to the unit.

This spring Simon has challenged Richard and Ballage to not only elevate their product on the field, but become better peer mentors.

“Stepping into that leader role, that’s what I’m improving on right now,” Richard said. “And learning the offense. That’s what I want to be better it. I want to master this offense like I mastered (former ASU offensive coordinator Mike) Norvell’s offense so once I get those two down I should be good.”

According to Simon, Richard and Ballage should each have a specific role in ASU’s offense this season and a creative challenge is working on exactly how the team can maximize its usage of both players.

“When you go to battle you want to have every weapon and you want to be able to have and use it effectively and I think they both have a skill set to be able to help us tremendously so it’s an opportunity for us and we did it last year (at Southern Miss),” Simon said. “We had two backs who had over 1,000 yards and we found a way to use them in the pass game and just take advantage of their strengths and put them in a position to be successful because when they are successful they will be good for our unit and for the team.”

Simon said Richard is an “every-down back” and a “complete back” in ASU’s system and credited Richard for losing about 15 pounds. Richard said Wednesday he is currently at 212 pounds.

“He’s a lot quicker,” Simon said. “He’s moving better. He’s improving in the route running phase of the game and that was one of the things I really wanted to focus on with him because he had the skill set to do it and he’s been doing a good job in that area.”

Losing weight has enhanced his versatility and speed in the open field, Richard said. How that will be displayed in the Lindsey offense is still being worked out.

“We will have a two-back set,” Richard said. “You might even see us out in an empty set where I’m at receiver by myself and Kalen is somewhere at trips or something like that. There’s a lot of two-back stuff coming in. We just haven’t put it in yet.  We just put in a lot of base stuff, but I’m excited to see what he (Lindsey) comes with Week 1 and what we have against (Texas) Tech and [USC] and UCLA. I’m excited to see what he has to put in.”

As for Ballage, Simon said he thinks the running back has “big-play ability." Ballage’s capability to work inside the tackles is encouraging, but when the big-framed back is able to break out into the open field, that’s where Simon thinks he can shine.

“He’s going to be a big guy, hard guy to bring down and he’s elusive and he has long speed,” Simon said. “So with his skill set we’re going to find a way to use him in the screen game and in the pass game, line him up as receiver, in the backfield, move him around. Just find ways to get him in space.”

One of the biggest things Ballage has focused on since he arrived at ASU has been his physical development.  

“Getting stronger,” Ballage said. “You know I had a back issue and things like that (last year). Just being able to be off the football field and in the weight room and getting myself stronger in every area has helped me a lot on the field.”

Ballage said he obviously wasn’t able to control the situation at the beginning of last season, missing the first three games due to mononucleosis, and all he can do this season is continuing to progress and go into the year with a “clean slate, clear mind, and play ball.”

The experience factor is one that should pay dividends for the veteran running backs as they embark upon learning an offense that has some differences.

“Me and D-Rich, we’re one of the most experienced group on this team,” Ballage said. “We played a lot since we were freshman. It’s easier for us to catch on with things and we catch on faster than most people would.”

Behind Richard and Ballage as the faces of the running backs group, Ralston and redshirt freshman running back Jason Lewis are waiting in the wings for their chance to make an impact in the second tier.

Ralston –at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds – came to ASU last spring as an early enrollee along with fellow Californian, redshirt freshman Brady White.

Taking a medical redshirt year due to injury last season, Ralston got the chance to learn by example from Richard, Ballage, and former ASU running back D.J. Foster.

“I was hurt coming into the season,” Ralston said. “I got hurt in fall camp and luckily I got a medical redshirt, but those limited reps, just being in the atmosphere and stuff like that really helped me.”

Ralston said this season, he lost about 25 pounds in order to improve his agility and quickness.

“I want to say he had 6,000 yards in high school and 50 carries in a game, it’s crazy,” Graham said. “I think that kind of all caught up with him and so that’s why he had the injuries he had last year so I think he’s finally just getting into collegiate shape.”

In Lindsey’s offense, Ralston sees himself as more of a true running back after slimming down, but one of the challenges now is to re-learn some of the things he got to soak in on the sidelines last season.

“Most of the installs that we’ve had are from Southern Miss, but it’s the same concept (as last year’s offense),” Ralston said. “Every day we watch some of Southern Miss tape.”

Simon compares Ralston to a Richard-type of back with his skill set working in between the tackles.

“You know, D-Rich, he is a heck of a running back and he is real physical and I’m just trying to learn from him and he’s the best running back I’ve ever played with,” Ralston said.

Someone else Ralston has learned a lot from is Simon. Ralston said the group is “blessed” to have Simon as their new position coach and he actually grades each player during each practice regarding different skill sets.

“I get A’s and stuff, but he (Simon) like, the goal for him is like 94 percent as a group so collectively we’ve been above that, but it’s cool that he does that,” Ralston said. “He does everything from pass protection, to reads, to assignment reads, to alignment He’s got a whole system, it’s crazy.”

The biggest area Ralston needs improvement in, according to Simon, is understanding the passing game. So far, Simon said Ralston is picking it up and studying what he’s supposed to do and he has trust in him that he will figure it out.

“Nick is the next guy and right there, just great protection, great blocker., great running the ball,” Graham said. “He’s at a different maturity level physically with his body and healthy and Jason is coming along as well and Jason is obviously a gifted player.”

Lewis, 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, has the physical attributes to make him a quality running back on the field, but Simon said Lewis hasn’t played to his stature quite yet.

Simon reiterated no one else can be and play like Lewis, and he has the potential to break out on the field, but the key is bringing out Lewis’s inner confidence.

“You got to be the bully when you have the ball in your hands and if we can get him to be a bully on the inside zone and impose his will and impose his size, that will be beneficial for us,” Simon said. “We don’t have that and it would be nice to have that guy when it’s tough that you can put a guy in there when you need two yards, just with size and group that he has the mindset he can go get it.

“He’s never seen himself has a 6-3, 245 downhill bully type back and that’s what we’re trying to change his mindset and if he can buy into that first, then we are ready to develop everything else around that. But first we have to have a nucleus of what is your identity.”

 

Notes

-- Junior linebacker Christian Sam (hip), senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (shoulder), freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nathe (knee), senior tight end Kody Kohl (leg), redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Whiley, and redshirt senior defensive lineman Emanuel Dayries were all on Muscle Beach rehabilitating and not participants in the team's Wednesday scrimmage. 

-- Junior tight end Grant Martinez was not in attendance.

-- Junior college transfer Maurice Chandler was not in a green non-contact jersey after wearing one on Monday. Chandler practiced normally in individual sessions media were able to view.


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