Less than a month into the season, Arizona State’s dynamic duo of running backs, juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, already appear comfortable running behind four new starters along the Sun Devils' offensive line.
The Sun Devils’ running game is averaging 260.7 yards on a 5.32 per carry average, and is responsible for 13 touchdowns.
Richard, Ballage and even sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins have been effective behind an inexperienced offensive line as the youthful group up front has continued to open up wide running lanes late into games. This gives ASU a ground-and-pound approach spearheaded by their rushing duo that wears down opposing defenses.
The Sun Devils have displayed their backfield depth through three games thus far, and it’s an element of the offense the team hopes to take advantage of every week.
“It speaks to our depth in the backfield and the offensive line,” first-year running backs coach John Simon said. “The discipline and the leadership we have up front, from that, we trust to put the game in their hands. We trust that they’re going to be physical, they’re going to play hard and that our backs are going to do the same. And just bring a certain intensity and passion to the game, you know as much as this game is about skill set, but it’s still a game of toughness. As an offense, we’re getting to play hard, physical football. It just gives you the momentum and motivates your guys. It ignites the sideline. It helps everybody believe that you’re the tougher team, so I think it’s important that we establish that part of the game. The team that runs the ball and protects the ball is going to win the football game.”
ASU has used two different sets of starters along the offensive line so far this season. In the opener, it was redshirt freshman Zach Robertson who started at right tackle, sophomore Quinn Bailey at right guard, senior Stephon McCray at center, sophomore Sam Jones at left guard, and senior Evan Goodman at left tackle. However, following an injury to Robertson, offensive line coach Chris Thomsen and head coach Todd Graham were forced to make a change.
The left side of the line with Goodman and Jones stayed the same, but the right side needed a slight tweak.
ASU shifted McCray from center to right guard while the coaching staff inserted junior A.J. McCollum at center. With McCray sliding over, Bailey moved from right guard to right tackle to account for Robertson's loss.
The added physicality from not only McCollum, but the entire group as a whole, has made it challenging for opposing defenses to limit ASU’s ground attack.
“I don’t think it’s anything that the other people on my team don’t do,” McCollum said. “It’s just the way I play, I guess, and that’s trying to put people on their back.”
ASU's success on the ground suggests it's likely defenses in the Pac-12 continue to stack eight men in the box to try and make Wilkins beat them through the air. If that's the case, Ballage isn't worried, because the Sun Devils should always have a fresh runner rotating in against a fatigued defense.
“I’m not really worried about it, honestly,” Ballage said. “They can do what they want. They can load the box and that just means we have something else, maybe somebody over the top, something in the middle. I heard Demario (Richard) saying, ‘Pick your poison.’ It’s really what it is.”
Against UTSA, first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey asked ASU's running backs and offensive linemen to step on the pedal against a Roadrunners' front that was running out of gas in the second half. Trailing 28-15 in the third quarter, ASU ran the ball on 12 consecutive plays, with 10 consecutive runs on the same series.
Lindsey said a lack of hitting on deep passes against a stacked box forced his hand with overpowering the Roadrunners on the ground in the second half, as ASU finished with over 200-plus yards for the third straight week to start the season.
“You know, it’s one of those things where I just felt like we were in a position to put the ball in our players’ hands, and putting it on our O-line saying, ‘Hey, here it is. We’re going to put it on your back," Lindsey said. “I just felt like we could keep running it. They were putting extra guys in the box and making us try to throw it over their head. We were hit and miss there a little bit, so I was to the point where I was like, ‘Hey, let’s hand the ball to (Richard and Ballage) and let’s put it on their backs, and they did a great job of it.”
Preparation in practice is what leads to those kinds of moments, and Goodman said the entire offensive group has that attitude of wanting to take over games week in and week out. Throughout practice, there is an emphasis of winning individuals battles at the line of scrimmage.
“We always have that type of mindset,” Goodman said. “When that time comes, we’re always going to be ready. So, work hard at practice everyday for that moment where the offensive coordinator says, ‘We’re going to win this game on y’all back.’ So, that’s how we do it.”
Even though this offensive line is relatively green in terms of career starts -- Goodman and Jones were the only two who had earned one prior to this year -- there is a lot of depth and stability in the group.
So far this season, ASU ranks in the top 40 in most offensive categories. It has the No. 16 rushing offense and the No. 37 passing offense, and it has only allowed four sacks, too. Playing offensive line may not lead to a lot of notoriety, but the efforts of the men in the trenches are not going unnoticed by the skill position players who reap the benefits of their work.
"A lot of people haven't seen the offensive line, like I said, but as you start to see, they're working, they're moving, they're moving people, they're blocking, they're running out in screens,” Richard said. “It’s a young and athletic offensive line. I'm confident in everything we do, everything [Chip Lindsey] calls, everything we run. Whatever he challenges us with this week, we're going to take the challenge and run with it. We're not shying down from nobody."
Having a fresh runner in every five or so carries will put obvious stress on a defense. Additionally, having two running backs with the inside power of Richard and quick burst ability from Ballage creates an even more challenging problem for opposing defenses.
“I mean, we’ve always worked together really good,” Ballage said of his relationship with Richard. “It’s just being able to have a fresh running back in at all times. He (Demario) goes in there gets four to five carries and then they pop him out and I haven’t gotten a carry yet. Put me in, I’m fresh. Just rotate back-and-forth to the point where we just keep coming at the defense. I know they have be thinking like, ‘Geez, this is kind of ridiculous.’ Running backs coming in with fresh legs every time, and that helps us out a lot.”