Running back Nick Ralston serves as a 'secret weapon' behind ASU's 1-2 punch

Arizona State running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are veteran leaders, but waiting in the wings is a player Richard calls the Sun Devils' "secret weapon."

Hidden behind the strength of Arizona State junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage is someone potentially even stronger.

He’s a running back who failed to take one handoff last season, yet Richard describes him as “everything you see in me and Kalen, just a little more bulk to him.” 

“Secret weapon, Nick Ralston,” Richard said. “That’s the secret weapon. We can’t wait for Nick to come out and show what he can do. Last year he had a little injury, but he bounced back and is having a great camp. Proud of him. That’s my little brother and can’t wait for him to step out on the field.”

Richard and Ballage are ASU’s clear one-two punch at the running back position, but with Ralston hanging in that No. 3 spot, it adds another layer to what the Sun Devils can accomplish out of the backfield.  

“Each one of those running backs have different skills and talents and he (Ralston) is a guy that really factors in for us and really allows us some flexibility to do some unique things,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said. “He’s exactly what a Sun Devil should be.”

Ralston, a redshirt freshman, received a medical hardship redshirt waiver last year after arriving as a mid-year high school graduate and suffering a hamstring injury early in the season.

“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 I probably contributed to my injury in the fall.”

Ralston came into ASU with an undefined role, not knowing if he would be placed as a fullback, H-back, tight end, running back or even linebacker. But, after his injury, the talk subsided and the natural progression to strictly playing tailback took place.

Since arriving on campus, Ralston has cut down about 25 pounds and is now listed at 215 pounds.

“I’m ready for him (Ralston) to get on the big screen and show everybody what he can do and show everybody in his little town in Texas what he’s doing here,” Richard said. “I’m proud of him.”

Besides the high praise from Richard himself, Ralston said ASU running backs coach John Simon has even talked about the style similarities between the two backs.   

“I try to model my game after him (Richard),” Ralston said. “Kalen is like the fastest, he’s straight-line, really fast — but Demario’s making cuts, power back. He’s got some moves, too. I just try to learn from all the different running backs.”

Along with learning from his fellow players in the backfield, Ralston said Simon has been instrumental in breaking everything down in the film room as well as on the field. Ballage noted how detailed Simon is in the usage of the backs at practice.

“He tracks every single one of our reps, from special teams, offense, everything we do at every practice, he has somebody track how many reps we’re getting and he tries to make that as even as possible,” Ballage said. “Nobody ever takes 30 reps compared to somebody else’s 10.”  

This balance not only allows for personal growth within each running back, but also helps with the fatigue and wear and tear that comes with fall camp before the season even begins.

Last year, Ballage sat out the first three games of the season due to mononucleosis before he recorded four touchdowns and had 125 carries for 679 yards. Richard led ASU rushers with seven touchdowns and had 198 carries for 1087 yards, averaging 95.5 yards per game.

This year, Richard has stressed staying healthy is one of the key factors to the Sun Devils' season.

In addition to staying healthy, the hire of first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has the running backs group excited. At Southern Miss last season, Lindsey paired with Simon and mentored two 1,000-yard backs in Ito Smith and Jalen Richard.

“I noticed that before we even hired Coach Lindsey,” Ballage said. “You know, just kind of hearing his name around the building when we were looking for a new offensive coordinator and kind of hearing people whisper about the two 1,000-yard rushers in one offense, it’s kind of hard to ignore.”  

The last time ASU had two running backs run for 1,000 or more yards a piece was in 1973. Woody Green had 1,313 yards and Ben Malone ran for 1,186 yards.

Ballage and Richard could potentially have that same opportunity this upcoming season--especially with the two hitting the field together.

“In the past, when we were younger and more immature, it was frustrating you know, him being on the field, and me not and vice versa cause we both just wanted to play, we both just wanted to have competitive spirit so just the opportunity for us both to be on the field at the same time, it’s really an amazing experience,” Ballage said. “And we’ve realized now, we’re better together than we are separate.”

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