With a new offensive coordinator, a new starting quarterback and four new offensive linemen, Arizona State didn't begin the 2016 season with much proven talent on the offensive side of the ball.
The Sun Devils knew there would be growing pains, but through fall camp and the early portion of ASU's season, most of the team's offensive players believed ASU's workhorses, junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, would combine to offset any challenges.
In 2015, Richard amassed 1,104 rushing yards on 210 attempts, averaging 5.3 yards per carry as he became just the fourth player in ASU history to record seven 100-yard rushing performances in a single season.
Ballage, meanwhile, demonstrated great promise through the second half of the 2015 season after missing ASU's first three games following a bout with mononucleosis. After his return, Ballage racked up 653 rushing yards on 125 attempts, an average of 5.2 yards per carry that nearly matched Richard's mark.
Though offensive coordinator Mike Norvell departed to take the head coaching job at Memphis during the offseason, Richard and Ballage felt invigorated by the opportunity to play under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, whose track record intrigued both players.
During Lindsey's final season with Southern Mississippi, running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith each surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau, which immediately caught the attention of the Sun Devils' backs when they began learning about their new coordinator.
“It’s hard to ignore it," Ballage told SunDevilSource on ASU media day. "I noticed that before we even hired Coach Lindsey. 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."
Aside from having Lindsey on staff, ASU also added former Southern Mississippi running backs' coach John Simon to the mix this season, as Simon officially took over the role vacated when Bo Graham resigned during the 2015 season.
Simon was responsible for adding to Ballage and Richard's arsenal, as well as monitoring their workload with extraordinary detail, recording each individual practice repetition the backs took to ensure neither player would tire over the course of the regular season.
"He (Simon) 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, and it’s helped me a lot."
With Richard, Ballage, Lindsey and Simon working together to orchestrate ASU's rushing attack, the successful season all four envisioned never materialized.
Even after a strong start to the year that included an NCAA record-tying eight touchdown performance from Ballage against Texas Tech that earned the junior national attention, the wheels paving the way for ASU's run game began falling off the vehicle expected to carry the Sun Devils' offense through conference play.
Behind an offensive line lacking critical experience and decimated by injuries, ASU never averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry in a single contest beyond the month of September, and neither Richard or Ballage recorded a 100-yard rushing effort in the season's final eight games.
A year that began with talk of dueling 1,000-yard seasons ended largely in disappointment for two of ASU's most important offensive weapons, as their limited production kept the Sun Devils' offense from reaching its full potential.
What we learned
ASU's 2016 season served as a reminder that for the most part, running backs are only as strong as their offensive line.
While Ballage and Richard were upbeat about all of the accomplishments they could achieve together this season, they likely ended the season in frustration as neither back showcased his full array of talents in what both would hoped would turn into a career year.
Prior to the season, Lindsey preached about the importance of Ballage and Richard trusting in one another and leaning on each other to keep ASU's offense moving forward this season, but Lindsey also explained why running backs, at least at the professional level, have been devalued in recent years.
“If you look at the NFL, you don’t see too many running backs picked early in the draft and there’s a reason for that right," Lindsey said. "The value of what, the livelihood of those guys and it’s important and we’ve tried to make the point with both of these kids (Ballage, Richard), they need each other. And next year, they’ll need each other again."
Lindsey suggested that at a certain point, all of the hits a running back takes begin to mount, and that happened for ASU's backs in 2016. Even though Simon and Lindsey monitored the backs' workload, ASU's offensive line struggled to generate push at the line of scrimmage throughout Pac-12 play and that took a toll on Ballage and Richard.
Instead of bursting through a line led by multi-year starters like Christian Westerman, Nick Kelly and Vi Teofilo as Ballage and Richard did last season, the duo never found its comfort zone behind an offensive line constantly forced to shuffled personnel due to injuries this season.
Though Ballage and Richard couldn't put ASU's offense on their shoulders, their play this season reminded ASU fans the value of a strong offensive line should never be overlooked.
Jason Lewis: One of the highest-rated recruits head coach Todd Graham has signed during his five-year stint in Tempe, Scout ranked Lewis as the No. 15 running back and No. 100 overall prospect for the Class of 2015. A physically imposing back out of Ocean Lake High in Virginia Beach, Florida, Lewis arrived at ASU with sky-high expectations that he never lived up to. After taking a redshirt year in 2015, Lewis began the 2016 season as the fourth running back on ASU's depth chart behind Ballage, Richard and fellow Class of 2015 recruit Nick Ralston, whose consistency and work ethic in practice gave him a leg up on Lewis. In Lewis' second year with the program, the redshirt freshman appeared frustrated with his role and missed at least one game due to a suspension before ultimately switching to the defensive side of the ball during the final few weeks of the regular season. Two days after ASU's Territorial Cup loss against Arizona, Lewis announced his intent to transfer out of the program to play for a school where the Pro-style back would be a better schematic fit.
Demario Richard: After posting a 1,000-yard rushing season in 2015, Richard began the year with the opportunity to join elite company at ASU and become the first Sun Devil to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Woody Green accomplished the feat in 1972 and 1973. A shorter, shiftier back than Ballage, Richard's skill set appeared better suited for Lindsey's offensive scheme, which features a heavy dose of 11-personnel sets. Still, the adjustment from Norvell's offense to Lindsey's was a challenge for Richard, in part because he appeared to lack the same explosiveness and burst this season that he displayed in 2015. Richard ended up averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season, and only handled the ball 155 times as his production dropped due to an undisclosed injury that hampered him during the second half of the season and due to Lindsey's reluctance to go to the ground with an inexperienced offensive line. Richard is expected to return for his senior season in 2016, and may elect to streamline his physique to help improve the burst missing from his game this year.
Kalen Ballage: For the first time since entering the program, Ballage entered the season with a clean bill of health as the 6-foot-2, 227-pound back appeared poised for his best season yet. Just two weeks into the year, Ballage was already garnering Heisman Trophy chatter as his eight-touchdown performance against Texas Tech tied the NCAA single-game record set back in 1990. However, after the Sun Devils' victory over the Red Raiders, Ballage managed just five touchdowns the rest of the season. While some of Ballage's best runs came when he took direct snaps out of ASU's "Sparky" formation, Ballage was somewhat challenged by the inside zone runs required of backs in an Air Raid-style of an offensive system like Lindsey's. Much like Lewis, who is transferring out of the program, Ballage is a larger back whose skill set is reminiscent of Pro-style backs that excel on toss sweeps and stretch zones as opposed to quick-hitting, between the tackles runs.
Nick Ralston: Behind Richard and Ballage, Ralston assumed the No. 3 running back duties and finished the year with 32 attempts for 139 yards in limited action. Ralston began his career at ASU unsure whether he would fit into the Sun Devils' grand scheme as a running back or linebacker, but after a freshman season cut short due to injury, Ralston slimmed down and settled into ASU's backfield with a 6-foot, 215-pound frame that bears similarities to Richard's physique. With Lewis' transfer, Ralston will enter the 2017 season as the clear-cut No. 3 back after freshman Tre Turner took a redshirt season. A high school workhorse who carried the ball 337 times during an undefeated senior season at Argyle High School in Texas, Ralston runs with a solid downhill approach and could take on a larger role if the Sun Devils need him to next year.
Tre Turner: A 5-foot-8, 191-pound back out of Holy Cross High in New Orleans, Louisiana, Turner spent the 2016 season redshirting and participating on ASU's scout team offense. Turner is expected to play both football and baseball at ASU, which means the former three-star recruit will miss valuable practice time this spring when he could have an opportunity to move up the depth chart in Lewis' absence. With Turner in the fold, ASU already has one running back, Trelon Smith, verbally committed for the Class of 2017 and could end up adding a second back if it believes the team could use more depth at the position.