Arizona state preparedness and potential grades: Running Back

Arizona State coach Todd Graham called his running backs the strength of the team's offense following spring football. How do we evaluate each player at the position? Here's our in-depth analysis.

1. Demario Richard (junior) -- Though he is very young for his grade, Richard has consistently demonstrated 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. When he's focused on it, his ball security is great, and not just because of his strength, but how he secures it in a variety of situations.

Last season, Richard played a bit heavy and it perhaps was a bit limiting in terms of his overall conditioning and ability to break away from defenders in space, or even explode through would-be tacklers arriving at an angle. Even so, he still ran for more than 1,000 yard on the season, one of only a handful of backs in the league to do so. This spring, he's leaned out, down about 10-15 pounds and better constructed at 212 pounds. 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 (junior) -- In each of his first two years in Tempe, Ballage has been snake bit to start the season. As a freshman in 2014 he had a back issue that limited his participation in preseason camp and it prevented a full showcasing of his athleticism and also kept Ballage from getting fully into the flow of things. In August of 2015 Ballage looked to be improved but again things took a turn for the worse when he contracted mononucleosis just prior to the season opener against Texas A&M and it cost him three games and led to a loss of weight, strength and stamina.

But the end of the season we saw the healthiest version of Ballage so far in Tempe and that's continued through this spring. Some of the core strength and flexibility issues that contributed to his initial back injury now appear to be much less of a factor. Additionally, we're seeing a more determined Ballage on interior runs, which he had a tendency to try to bounce outside earlier in his career even when not called for in the play design. That's a huge part of his development, as Ballage is so angular that he presents a lot of surface area to strike for defenders and partly because of this and his build up speed he's tackled a bit easier than is desirable on inside runs. But he's going to have to continue to develop in this area to become more of a workhorse high-carry option. 

In the open field, Ballage is electric, quite possibly the fastest player on the roster. The key for ASU is trying to get him the ball in situations where that can be exploited. Ballage is a back with gathering speed, not quite the initial quickness of typical spread running backs who work great out of shotgun offset formations. Ballage is more of a toss sweep back, or other types of plays that get him building up to speed in order to access the perimeter. He's great at getting his foot into the ground and making an explosive cut downfield. So ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is going to want to be creative about using him, especially because Ballage and Richard are a little different and rather complimentary. Preparedness Grade: 4 / Potential Grade: 5

3. Nick Ralston (freshman) -- A year ago Ralston arrived as a true freshman in the spring somewhat wary after a monstrous workload through his team's undefeated high school season. It wasn't clear if Ralston was going to play linebacker or running back or even be used as a fullback/h-back type, with the latter ending up being his primary usage until a hamstring injury cost him the season. 

Ralston should receive a medical hardship waiver and get a second chance at a freshman season, and he's much more prepared for success this time around. In recent months Ralston has cut about 20 pounds off his frame in order to be more of a true running back, now in the 215 pound range. This has helped improve his quickness and agility and he's really running with impressive leverage an pad level now and showing good vision and avoiding initial contact in the gap. 

We thought we'd never see Ralston as a breakaway threat or a weapon on the edge, but he's started to show increased capability in that regard as he's significantly leaned out. As a between-the-tackles ball carrier on inside zone he has some good value and especially so as a third-down type player. He's not necessarily a big home run threat at this stage of his development but he'll probably be able to get a hard-earned three or four yard on the inside about as well as Richard and there's something to be said for that. Ralston also is a three down back who is good in protections and can probably be a check down/screen game receiver. His upside isn't significant but Ralston has a high floor. Preparedness Grade: 3 / Potential Grade: 4

4. Jason Lewis (redshirt freshman) -- Just on the hoof, Lewis is physically one of the best looking players on the ASU roster. Standing side by side with Kalen Ballage, who is a very well put together running back at 225-plus pounds, it's remarkable how Lewis is clearly bigger. But the issue at this stage of Lewis's development is that he doesn't play to his size nearly enough. He's prone to reducing the his foot-speed in anticipation of contact in space when he should instead be accelerating through defenders who are similarly sized or often smaller. Numerous times during the spring ASU running backs coach John Simon was heard calling out to Lewis on the field about this exact issue. 

When Lewis does run as hard as he can, and work to keep his center of gravity low on his tall frame, he has the ability to make defenders bounce off of him. More importantly, he has the ability to put a sense of dread or even fear in the minds of smaller defensive players even at the college level, and that could lead to more big play opportunities. But that's not going to happen until he decides to make it so on a consistent basis. Lewis also is still early in his understanding of the position and Simon has the ability to help a lot in that regard. Reliability, and confidence from his coaches will lead to more chances and that has to start with having a tenacious disposition through the whistle. Preparedness Grade: 2 / Potential Grade: 4

Preparedness/Potential Grade Key

5: All-American capability/prospect

4: First/second team all-league 

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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