ASU running backs following NFL template

After supporting two 1,000-yard backs at Southern Miss last season, running backs coach John Simon is confident ASU will have two workhorses in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.

Arizona State junior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard haven't played a down under new Sun Devil running backs coach John Simon. 

But that hasn't impacted their trust in Simon's coaching abilities or their anticipated roles in ASU's offense this season.

Simon represents the third running backs coach to lead Ballage and Richard since their arrival on campus in 2014, while Chip Lindsey's hiring in December gave the pair its second offensive coordinator of their college careers.

While playing for coaches who didn't recruit them might disappoint some players, ASU's running backs are elated with the new assistants head coach Todd Graham brought to the program.

"It's been amazing, really there's no other way to describe it other than that," Ballage said of working with Lindsey and Simon. "They give us the ability to use all of our talents and that's all I could ever ask for. Just to be able to do so many different things and it's been a great experience."

In 2015, Lindsey paired with Simon at Southern Miss, where the coaches engineered an offense that produced a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Ito Smith and Jalen Richard. Both players averaged at least 5.9 yards per carry and an average of 12 touches per game as Southern Miss rolled to a nine-win season in Conference USA.

The balance ASU's new coaches found for their Southern Miss running backs provides Ballage and Richard with a sense of security heading into a pivotal season for the duo. With a new quarterback and four new offensive linemen expected to start for ASU, the Sun Devils will need to rely on proven weapons, and Ballage and Richard are already in place as the most explosive guns.

"It's wild, and we always talk about this, but me and Demario (Richard), we're considered veterans and we were last year, and last year it was just our sophomore year," Ballage said. "We were placed into that role early on and it's kind of weird when you just get thrown into the fire like that, but we're definitely coming into that role and just making the best of it."

At the outset of last season, Ballage and Richard looked poised to become a two-headed monster in ASU's backfield as true sophomores. But in the days leading up to the Sun Devils' season-opener, Ballage received devastating news.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound back was diagnosed with mononucleosis prior to ASU's contest against Texas A&M, and didn't play until the team's conference opener against USC. Though Ballage found himself back in the lineup less than a month after his diagnosis, he didn't begin to look close to full strength or speed until mid-to-late October.

The loss forced Richard to shoulder a heavy load early in the season, and the smaller, shifter member of the duo paid for it as a result. Richard missed ASU's contest with Utah due to injury last year, right at a point in October when the Sun Devils could have benefitted from balance.

Richard left Tuesday's practice with an ankle injury, and wasn't participating in drills during the media viewing portion of Wednesday's session. However, Richard was not wearing a green non-contact jersey, and only had a small brace on his ankle. 

Assuming Ballage and Richard are able to make it to this year's season opener fully healthy, perhaps the most difficult assignment for Lindsey and Simon will be keeping their backs satisfied with their rep count while keeping ASU's opponents' off balance.

"The tough thing is when you have multiple talented guys, you know, at a position," Simon said. "They both want the ball and they deservedly both want the ball. They both should want they ball, that's why they came here. The biggest thing, it's just continuing to work and understand as a group that our strength is together. When you're fresh and able to maintain and play at a high level, because you're not fatigued."

It's rare for a team to have two of its most important players manning the same position, but that's exactly what the Sun Devils have in their running backs. 

Graham has talked openly about putting both players on the field at the same time to maximize their play-making abilities, but when asked about the possibility of playing Ballage and Richard together, Simon was more cautious.

The running backs' coach knows the dangers associated with fatigued backs, and ASU experienced that situation first-hand last season. The goal for the Sun Devils this season is to keep both Richard and Ballage healthy, and that may mean trading reps more often than it means sharing the field.

“In a perfect world, they would both be out there, but then you take a risk of both getting injured or something happening and now you’ve got to bring another guy out there," Simon said. "So I think the best way to try to utilize those guys is when they’re out there, they’re involved. You know, we don’t want them to just be out there just to say hey, they’re both on the field. But I think we have a plan where we’re going to try to use both of them at the same time. But they’re both going to get their fair share."

There's never been a doubt about Richard's determination to be involved, as the Palmdale, California native demonstrated when he rushed 210 times for 1,104 yards during his sophomore season.

There have also been few doubts about Richard's self-confidence, and throughout his career, he's had every reason to believe in himself. This season, though, Richard wants that belief in his abilities to emanate from others outside the ASU program. 

Prior to the start of fall camp, Richard tweeted about "being slept on," and when asked to dive deeper into that thought, the 5-foot-10, 215-pound back had a message for a national audience.

"I don't know, I just felt like I was slept on, I still feel like I’m slept on," Richard said. "That’s cool. People can keep sleeping on me. But everybody on the west coast knows who Demario Richard is, but now it’s time for everybody from the west coast to the east coast to know who I am. That’s basically what I was saying. I wasn’t saying it in a disrespectful way, I wasn’t trying to disrespect anybody here, the Pac-12, none of that."

Richard's desire to become a household name comes in a year when running backs are threatening to dominate the college football landscape. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Florida State's Dalvin Cook have all garnered preseason Heisman chatter, while other Pac-12 running backs like Oregon's Royce Freeman and Washington's Myles Gaskin will push for All-Conference honors.  

The persistent emergence of physically imposing and athletically gifted backs figures to be a weekly storyline in college football this year, and Richard clearly wants in on the conversation. 

Ballage also exudes confidence, and has a rare blend of size and speed that compliments Richard's inside-the-tackles style. While the task of keeping two running backs satisfied is tough, Simon's job is made slightly easier because Ballage and Richard are well suited to different aspects of the position.

Richard is perceived as more of an inside zone runner who thrives off finding cutback lanes, whereas Ballage is considered the superior outside zone, buck sweep-type of back who can turn the corner and run to daylight. 

The difference doesn't necessarily make one better than the other, and Simon said ASU will be able to find success using both players in a variety of different manners.

"There’s different styles in the NFL when you look at the NFL," Simon said. "When you compare Chris Johnson to an Adrian Peterson, both guys are successful but it’s different. I think they’re both every down backs, I think it’s different styles. I think D-Rich (Richard) is probably a bit more of a north and south guy, I think Kalen (Ballage) is more I trust my speed and if I can get outside, I’m a get outside guy. But that doesn’t mean D-Rich can’t run outside, that doesn’t mean Kalen’s not an inside guy who can be physical."

An NFL room

One factor working in the pair's favor aside from Lindsey and Simon's previous success in managing running backs is Simon's NFL background. 

Though Simon spent parts of just three seasons in the NFL, the ASU assistant was a standout in college at Louisiana Tech and learned valuable lessons from his professional stint that have carried over into his coaching. All it took for Simon to command the respect of his players was flipping on his old film, which stuck with Ballage.

"He (Simon) was pretty nice," Ballage said. "He came in and pulled up some film of him back in the day and he was good."

A critical takeaway from Simon's NFL days that the former Titans' and Redskins' running back brought to ASU comes in the form of how he structures the depth chart and divides playing time. 

ASU knows what it has in Ballage and Richard, but the Sun Devils also want to begin to cultivate younger talent because depth is crucial at the position. With a pair of redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings behind ASU's top backs, Simon wants those players to understand their roles and find ways to help the team.

“Special teams is a big part of it," Simon said. "Because we’ve got two guys that are really good, and the other guys are solid as well, so now it’s an NFL room where that third and fourth spot is going to be determined by where you are on the special teams depth chart.”

Simon said a crucial part of his job is providing players with honest and frequent communication and evaluation. As a player, Simon could live with a game in which he didn't see the field. What really disappointed him was a game where he didn't see the field after his coach told him he would play. 

"You always have to be consistent and be honest with those guys and let them know where they stand and where the chips are and what they need to do to improve and what they need to do to get playing time," Simon said. "There won’t be a situation where they’ll go into a game and be surprised at the playing time that they’re going to get. That’s the biggest thing, expectations, that there’s a clear line of expectations whether it’s five snaps or 10 snaps."

Next in line

After recruiting well at running back under Graham, ASU has a stable of young backs Simon will need to temper expectations for in 2016.

Barring an injury, it's unlikely redshirt freshman Nick Ralston or redshirt freshman Jason Lewis would step into an expanded role this season. Still, both players are growing more comfortable within ASU's scheme and indicated they're acclimating well to the college level. 

Ralston saw playing time early last season, but suffered a hamstring injury that helped him qualify for a medical redshirt. After slimming down during ASU's summer conditioning program, Ralston has taken a considerable amount of third team reps as Ballage and Richard have split opportunities with the first team during fall camp.

"I had 400 carries my senior year of high school," Ralston said. "That really banged me up. I graduated early and I came in the spring and still was feeling not right throughout the spring. We trained really hard. I probably was overweight and that probably contributed to my injury in the fall. I tore my hamstring. Basically, just trimming down has been really helpful."

Ralston broke off an impressive touchdown run on the third day of fall camp during ASU's practice at Rumsey Park in Payson. After taking the handoff, Ralston sprinted past left tackle Evan Goodman before cutting inside the block of wide receiver Ellis Jefferson and breaking down the sideline for the end zone. 

While that run came on an outside zone play, Ralston is built more in the mold of a Richard-type inside zone runner and that's where he excelled in high school. Ralston said Simon actually talked to him about modeling his game after Richard, but also said he's learning from every running back in ASU's unit.

"Coach Simon's talked about that before, and Demario (Richard) is a really good runner," Ralston said. "I try to model my game after him. Kalen (Balalge) is like the fastest, he's straight-line, really fast-but Demario's making cuts, he's a power back. He's got some moves, too."

Aside from Ralston, former walk-on Jacom Brimhall and fellow redshirt freshman Jason Lewis have also split third and fourth team reps this fall. 

Lewis admitted he felt overwhelmed at times during his redshirt season last year, but said after working on his conditioning and learning ASU's playbook, he's in a much more comfortable spot entering this season.

Simon, however, wasn't willing to go so far as to say Lewis is ready for competition yet, but also said he doesn't think a running back is ready until he's put everything together.

“I can’t say he’s (Lewis) ready yet," Simon said. "Just because a guy is not ready until he’s done it. That’s the one thing I shared with all of those guys, the guys that we haven’t seen their success on the field, every day matters. Every day at practice matters, every day at practice you’ve got to prove to us that you’re ready.”

Lewis, though, hasn't been discouraged playing behind Ballage, Richard and even Ralston so far this fall. Instead, he's bought in to the concept of the 'NFL room' Simon brought to the desert and believes Simon's coaching techniques will help make him a more complete back in the long run.

"He runs it how it's going to work in the pros and everything, he teaches us the fundamentals and everything from the ground up," Lewis said. "Teaches more about life, and stuff like that, so he can just put it into games. So it's really easy to understand him. He's a real good coach, too."

News and Notes

  • Richard was fully dressed out today and wearing shoes with his right ankle in a brace inside of his shoes. He walked through ASU's injury line with no limp.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey hurt his right foot/ankle in practice yesterday and was wearing a walking boot. We do not know any official timeline for either Richard or Harvey.
  • Freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry remained in a green jersey for the second straight day and was jogging at half speed.
  • Junior college transfer Maurice Chandler was in green today and though he didn't participate in some drills, we did see him run and secondary coach T.J. Rushing said after practice Chandler had been integrating into practice more often lately and that he hoped to have him back soon.
  • Sophomore Manny Wilkins worked with the first team at quarterback for the third straight day during an 11-on-air period the media was allowed to view while redshirt freshman Brady White worked with the a second team.
  • With Harvey out, senior wide receiver Tim White split out wide today and senior Frederick Gammage played in the slot with the first team offense. 

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