When last season began for Arizona State, running back Kalen Ballage was stuck at home having to watch his teammates face off against Texas A&M in Reliant Stadium.
That’s because Ballage was sidelined with mononucleosis, which kept him out for the first three weeks of ASU’s season. The illness sucked the energy out of Ballage, but heading into his junior season, Ballage said he feels healthier than he was before his diagnosis.
Ballage’s illness depleted ASU’s depth at the position for a few weeks -- especially against the Aggies, as the Sun Devils averaged just 2.2 yards per carry.
“It feels a lot different, just physically, mentally, too,” Ballage said on ASU’s media day. “Something you train nine months for one game versus Texas A&M and then you’re unable to play. Not only physically, but mentally that was kind of discouraging. I’m definitely, if anything, more (strong) than I was before. Physically and mentally just very confident. Happy about the new coaching staff, and everything moving forward.”
Now that Ballage is healthy heading into a season opener, he adds another dimension alongside junior Demario Richard that could make this duo one of the best in the Pac-12. Richard, ASU’s workhorse running back, knows the significance of a healthy Ballage and is looking forward to seeing every back on the field this season.
“It just feels good to have everybody,” Richard said when asked about Ballage being healthy at the start of this season compared to last. “Everybody’s getting into game week form. Just feels good to have everybody back on the field at the same time.”
Even though the pair represents a potent combination, both Ballage and Richard have implicated their relationship hasn’t always been smooth. Trying to best one another as ASU’s bell cow running back put a strain in their relationship, but once they realized they were better with each other, the duo worked to find a balance.
If both can stay fresh throughout the season, their health isn't just a positive for ASU's coaches, but for their bodies as well as they stand to suffer fewer hits. Maintaining a healthy ratio is one of the philosophies first-year running backs coach John Simon introduced to the duo in the backfield.
“Coach Simon is very smart about the way he uses all of us,” Ballage said. “He tracks all of our reps, from special teams, offense, everything that we do at every practice. He has somebody track how many minutes we’re getting. He tries to make that as even as possible. Nobody ever takes 30 reps on offense compared to somebody else’s 10. He always evens it out, and that’s helped me a lot. I know it’s helped Demario, Nick (Ralston) and the other running backs as well.”
Simon’s presence has brought some positive eagerness to the ASU running backs. Simon's NFL experience, especially in professional meeting room settings, has been one area that’s stood out to both Ballage and Richard. As NFL teams use multiple running backs to spell one another, ASU now has the ability to follow that model.
Simon was the position coach who helped Jalen Richard and Ito Smith to a combined 2,220 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns in 2015 at Southern Miss, and with the pro potential ASU’s tandem possesses, the Sun Devil backs haven’t avoided questions about becoming the program's first pair of 1,000-yard rushers since Woody Green and Ben Malone accomplished the feat in 1973.
“It’s hard to ignore, I noticed that before we even hired coach Lindsey,” Ballage said of Lindsey’s explosive offense. “Just kind of hearing his name around the building, looking for an offensive coordinator. Kind of hear people whisper about two 1,000-yard rushers in one offense, it’s kind of hard to ignore. So, looking forward, that’s definitely something that’s going to catch not only our eyes -- me, Demario, and other people on this football team -- but the fans as well.”
Last season, Ballage had 125 carries for 653 yards and four touchdowns after he returned to the field. In 11 games, Richard ran for 1,098 yards on 209 carries. Both of ASU’s running backs averaged more than five yards per carry (Ballage averaged 5.2, Richard averaged 5.3), and if each player held that clip steady this season, both can eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau with 200 carries or more this year.
How challenging is it for two running backs on the same team to run for over 1,000 yards, and still have a 4,000-yard passer? Lindsey’s 2015 offense joined only 2008’s Oklahoma squad that included Sam Bradford throwing for over 4,700 yards, while DeMarco Murray (1,002 yards) barely joined Chris Brown (1,220 yards) to help the trio reach the rare feat.
Without Ballage on the sidelines, though, ASU’s running back combo has the health necessary to challenge a 43-year program drought without a pair of 1,000-yard backs.