Eve Craig/SunDevilSource

Arizona State Season Preview: Running Back

Running back should be the strength of Arizona State's offense, with a returning 1,000 yard rusher who will look to accomplish something that hasn't been done in 40-plus yards at the school.

It figures to be the case that Arizona State will rely heavily on its potent one-two punch of junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage in 2016. 

Why wouldn't that be the case?

The Sun Devils will feature a first-year quarterback who has yet to throw a pass in college in sophomore Manny Wilkins, and an offensive line that is among the least experienced in the country, and a first-year offensive coordinator, Chip Lindsey. 

That's a lot to adjust to, and ASU head coach Todd Graham already has said through his four years in Tempe that he wants the identify of his team to be a physical downhill rushing attack that opens up play action passing opportunities. 

So Richard and Ballage will get a lot of opportunities. Still just a teenager even though he enters his third season of college football, Richard rushed for just over 1,100 yards last season. In the year ahead he'll attempt to become the first running back at ASU to rush for 1,000 or more yards in back-to-back seasons since Woody Green did so three seasons in a row in the early 1970s. 

An inside zone runner, Richard is a great fit for the Linsey scheme. The offensive coordinator also likes to throw the ball a lot to his backs and Richard is a natural route runner with impressive ball skills releasing from the backfield or even when lined up on the line of scrimmage. 

At 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, Ballage enters the season healthy for the first time in his college career. As a true freshman Ballage had back issues in camp and was limited to some degree by core strength and flexibility challenges. He made strides in those areas last year but then came down with mono immediately prior to the opener against Texas A&M and wasn't back to full strength until the middle of the season. 

Ballage is a good counterpunch to Richard. He's a dynamic stretch zone and sweep type runner who has great build up speed and an ability to get his foot in the ground and explode after searching for the best run lane. In the past, Ballage wanted to bounce the ball outside even when it wasn't called for on the play, but he's not doing that as much any more, and appears poised to have a his best season.

When he gets into the second level, Ballage is going to be able to make defenders miss and be a threat to score on long runs, or even in the passing game on swings and screens. 

The Sun Devils have a really solid No. 3 option at running back, redshirt freshman Nick Ralston. He arrived at ASU with positional uncertainty and played mostly as a lead blocking fullback. But now he's lost 25 pounds and physically recovered from a heavy workload as a senior in high school and torn hamstring suffered last season. He's looking athletic and is in some ways similar to Richard as an interior rusher who can get on the second level in a hurry, with impressive vision and short-area quickness. 

If ASU needs to go to a fourth running back due to injuries, redshirt freshman Jason Lewis is big and talented, at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. He's just earlier in the process of learning the finer nuances of the position and will benefit from being a consistently tougher runner who finishes plays and keeps his feet working until he's on the ground. 

Quotable

John Simon: "There’s different styles in the NFL when you look at the NFL. 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."

John Simon: "The tough thing is when you have multiple talented guys, you know, at a position. 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."

John Simon: “Special teams is a big part of it, 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.”

Demario Richard: "I don't know, I just felt like I was slept on, I still feel like I’m slept on.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."

Kalen Ballage: "It's been amazing, really there's no other way to describe it other than that. 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."

Kalen Ballage: "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. 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."

Nick Ralston: "I had 400 carries my senior year of high school. 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."

Nick Ralston: "Coach Simon's talked about that before, and Demario (Richard) is a really good runner. 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."

John Simon: “I can’t say [Jason Lewis is] ready yet. 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.”

Jason Lewis: "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. 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."

Player Capsules / Grades

Demario Richard

Kalen Ballage

Nick Ralston

Jason Lewis

Running Back preparedness and potential grades


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