Ideal scholarship roster number: 5-6
Potential returning number (2017): 4 (Demario Richard, Kalen Ballage, Nick Ralston, Tre Turner)
Likely returning number: 4-5
One of the unquestionable strengths of Arizona State roster heading into 2017 is the personnel at running back, where seniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are each capable of being in the all-conference conversation if given enough reps and blocking.
Running back is a position that coaches don't want to be short on talent because injuries are common and depth is important. Coaches know they're typically going to have to play a few guys in any given season. So even though this group is in good shape, things can change quickly.
With the addition of Houston Cypress Ridge -- also known As Cy-Ridge locally -- star player Trelon Smith to the 2017 ASU commit list, we got our first example of a running back that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and running backs coach John Simon find to be a good fit for their scheme. Lindsey has since departed, of course, but Simon remains.
Smith is a utility back, the kind you most typically will see in spread style offenses that are zone-heavy in the run game and like to throw the ball to the backs, all of which fits what we've seen so far from Lindsey. Smith is not too dissimilar style-wise from what Lindsey and Simon had with Southern Miss running back Ito Smith, who had nearly 1700 yards from scrimmage including 1,156 rushing yards and 49 catches, third-most on the team. The backs that ASU has offered in 2017 are not the bigger, pro-style backs that we have seen ASU sign in recent years, like Kalen Ballage and Jason Lewis.
Lindsey used Ito Smith very extensively in the passing game in a variety of ways, and Trelon Smith looks to have the same potential in that regard. He releases naturally into space and catches the ball pretty effortlessly -- not just in short screens but even on flares and wheels. What makes him a particularly exciting player in this regard is his short-area explosiveness and ability to set up and slalom defenders in space. He can beat the first would-be tackler more often than a lot of guys due to his elusiveness and ability to get lateral on the fly.
Due to Smith's small stature -- he measured 5-foot-7 and 181 pounds at The Opening Dallas regional in March -- a lot of people are going to make the comparison to Jacquizz Rodgers, as both are from the Houston area and Rodgers played in the Pac-12 at Oregon State. Another Houston native, former five-star Trey Williams who played collegiately with Texas A&M and is now with the Indianapolis Colts, has some similarity from a stature standpoint.
There are big differences between Rodgers and Williams though that are particularly germane here to the purposes of this evaluation. Rodgers has great strength and was a remarkable post-contact producer in college for his size, while Williams was a little faster in the open field but not nearly as capable at the point of contact. The range between the two players in this regard makes all the difference in the world. On one end of the spectrum, Rodgers handled a huge workload and played in a pro-style offense where he operated between the tackles very capably, which is extremely rare at 180-something pounds. Williams, on the other end, carried the ball only about five times per game in a spread offense, because of his lack of strength as a runner.
Trelon Smith is slightly built for an undersized scat-back, and this is a very important point, and one that tends to be limiting to players at his position projecting beyond college and often even in college. He's not the type of guy who has a frame that is going to carry 210 pounds at his height, like a Maurice Jones-Drew or a Ray Rice. You see very few guys with Smith's stature playing beyond college for any length of time, and the ones who do usually have to be able to handle a slot workload or be perfect fits in pass heavy schemes as Joker type backs. They don't tend to run strong enough inside to be used in that fashion with any regularity.
Smith also isn't a speed burner, despite having good short area explosiveness. What he does do is get up to speed quickly, and that allows him to get on the second level crease early and beat inside backers to the spot, and be a potential big play threat on inside zone, particularly with how well he presses the gap. But at The Opening regional in Dallas he clocked 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash, so he's not out-running most defensive backs at this level. For comparison's sake, Rodgers also was quicker than fast, but a 4.52 second 40-yard dash result at the NFL Combine is still pretty good.
Smith and Williams both like to seek the sideline a bit too much and give up the play-side in favor of improvisation, a common characteristic of a lot of small backs who grew up being able to laterally out-run an entire defense. But importantly, Smith is more in the mold of Rodgers with how he handles contact due to his impressive balance and atypical strength for his body-type, and also just his overall disposition. He's got a lot of toughness in his game, not just the make-you-miss, even though he does that very well aided by his really good vision. He's willing to deliver a blow. But Smith also gets tackled at first contact at a higher rate than you'd prefer, and he benefited tremendously by playing behind a very good offensive line.
With a 4.36 shuttle, 28.5 inch vertical jump, and 31.0 power ball toss, Smith's athleticism doesn't pop in a testing setting, as his Nike Rating is just 74.37. But he pops reasonably well on film and put together a good junior season as the MVP at District 16-6A -- the highest level in Texas, where there are a lot of athletes in Houston -- with 1,807 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. That included back-to-back 300-plus yard games, which included a great display of durability.
Smith also looks more athletic than his numbers, but the truth is there are a slew of undersized guys who test similarly and very few end up being workhorse star players at the major college level or NFL draft picks. To do so Smith will have to be the exception. That's difficult to project but he should at least be a versatile hybrid back who provides a lot of excitement and some big play capability. Maybe he'll be more than that, it's just difficult to have such an expectation.