Spring primer: Running backs
Demario Richard: 155 attempts, 593 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, three touchdowns in 2016
Kalen Ballage: 126 attempts, 536 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 14 touchdowns in 2016
Nick Ralston: 32 attempts, 139 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, two touchdowns in 2016
Tre Turner: Redshirted in 2016.
Spring newcomers (1)
Eno Benjamin: Four-star signee, No. 2 running back in Midlands region, No. 10 running back nationally
Anticipated fall arrivals (1)
Trelon Smith: Three-star signee, No. 6 running back in Midlands region, No. 36 running back nationally
What to expect: Last spring, Arizona State's junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage were not only among the most veteran offensive players on the field, they ranked among the most experienced members of the program, period.
When spring practices began, Richard and Ballage were dealing with a first-year offensive coordinator and first-year position coach while adjusting to life with a total of five new assistant coaches on Todd Graham's staff.
As two of the most physically gifted athletes in ASU's program, Richard and Ballage greeted the arrivals of first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and running backs' coach John Simon with open arms, especially in light of the fact Lindsey and Simon helped running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith to 1,000-yard rushing seasons during the 2015 season at Southern Miss.
As experienced upperclassmen on a roster flush with younger talent, Richard and Ballage expected to carry a significant offensive burden in 2016, which ratcheted up their personal expectations for what they hoped to accomplish last season.
After impressive early season efforts, including Ballage's NCAA record-tying eight touchdown performance against Texas Tech, their seasons took a sharp turn and their production declined precipitously.
A season full of promise tuned largely fruitless, leaving the pair frustrated and at times even visibly dejected, as the Sun Devils lost six straight games to end the year.
Even though Ballage finished with just 536 rushing yards in 2016, the Falcon, Colorado, native seriously contemplated entering the NFL Draft this offseason instead of playing his senior season in an ASU offense that hasn't exactly catered to his skill set over the last three years.
However, Ballage made the decision in January to return to the Sun Devils after Simon, a former NFL player, helped him understand the intricacies of the draft process.
“Kalen and I talked about it, obviously throughout the process and some of the factors that you want to consider, we went through," Simon said. "We talked about all of the facts, all of the data, all of the projections, all of the number of backs that are coming out. And then the opportunity if he came back, weighing the pros and cons of both situations and it’s a unique situation. After looking at it, he made a decision on his own with him and his family and he felt like this was the best decision for him and for his family and of course for the program.”
At ASU's spring media day last week, Ballage explained how close he was to foregoing his senior season, while the Sun Devils' new offensive coordinator Billy Napier discussed how critical it will be for ASU to have at least two starter-caliber running backs in his scheme moving forward.
Napier, a former Alabama assistant, comes from a program whose offense is predicated on running the ball, and both Napier and Graham have indicated the Sun Devils will be more run-heavy this season they they have been the last couple years.
With Ballage back, ASU certainly has two of the Pac-12's most capable running backs at its disposal, but it remains to be seen whether the Sun Devils can find an appropriate balance between Ballage and Richard and put each player in the best possible position to succeed.
At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Ballage possesses more straight-line speed than Richard, with a running style ideally suited to pro-style schemes. At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Richard, is more of a gap-scheme, spread-style back who has benefited from the approaches used by Lindsey and his predecessor, Mike Norvell.
The challenge for Napier, Simon and ASU is creating an offensive identity that makes the most of both players' talents and specific strengths while keeping defenses off balance and preventing the Sun Devils from becoming predictable.
"I definitely think they’re complementary backs for one another, two different styles, Kalen is faster so he would be your speedier guy but he does possess the power to run inside," Simon said. "D-Rich (Richard) is a physical guy, a power guy who’s game is centered around punishing a defense, setting up the defenders and punishing them so that’s his style. At the same time he’s athletic enough to run routes, catch the ball and do some things in space. But I definitely think their skill set is different, but they are very complementary.”
When Simon arrived in 2016, Ballage and Richard admitted they hadn't always understood the mutual benefits of complementing one another in the backfield. As they approach their final spring at ASU, though, Simon said he'll rely on the duo to fulfill the roles the coaching staff allocates, because that's not only going to help the program, but it should ultimately make each player more appealing in the eyes of NFL scouts and talent evaluators.
"If you’re talking about being a professional, if you’re talking about playing on Sundays in the NFL, then those are some of the things on the decision you’re going to have to make here mentally to prepare yourself," Simon said. "It’s going to be tested on this level and to prove that you’re that type of player, that’s going to be part of the process.”
When Napier detailed the running back position at spring media day, he also spoke highly of sophomore Nick Ralston, who added 139 yards on 32 carries during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2016.
After entering ASU as a linebacker/H-back prospect, Ralston streamlined his physique and found a home at running back, the position he played during a prolific high school career in the state of Texas. Though Ralston finds himself behind Richard and Ballage in the Sun Devils' pecking order, he's impressed his teammates and coaching staff with his work ethic and drive.
Simon said spending the last two seasons adjusting to the college level and learning how to play the position at ASU has benefited Ralston, who is receptive to coaching and could earn more opportunities this season if the Sun Devils are able to run the ball more consistently.
"I think it’s good that he (Ralston) had a chance to sit a little bit, coming from the Texas style of ball, being able to rest, having two guys in front of him, but you’ll see the kid just gets better and better, it’s important to him," Simon said. "He’s smart, he’s intelligent, he has the skill set, he’s physical so I think the future is definitely bright with the guys that we have in that room."
Behind Ralston, Simon is excited about the potential of three other underclassmen, two of which will be with the program this spring.
After redshirting in 2016, two-sport athlete (baseball) Tre Turner will have his first opportunity to carve out a role within the Sun Devils' offense. Considered one of ASU's fastest offensive weapons, Turner likely doesn't possess the size or advanced feel for the running back position to carve out a role as a primary back. However, Simon is hoping the Sun Devils can take advantage of what Turner does have to offer and find creative ways to get him the ball in space.
At 5-foot-9 and 191 pounds, Turner has the ability to contribute as a scat-back type of player, or someone ASU can throw the ball to on third downs or in the screen game to try and pick up chunk yardage.
"Tre Turner was signed as a running back that’s supposed to be a blazer, was a 4.3 guy, low 4.4 guy, that’s what we’re going to be looking for," Simon said. "To find ways to get Tre out in space this spring and see if he can challenge the defense with his speed and see if he can bring us back some big plays so it’s going to be very important that we see some big runs out of Tre this spring.”
Turner should have opportunities to impress the coaching staff this spring, especially considering four-star signee and mid-year enrollee Eno Benjamin will likely be unable to perform in contact or team drills until the fall. The highest-rated running back signee of Graham's tenure, Benjamin suffered a foot injury in the U.S. Army All-American game in January, the day he announced his commitment to the Sun Devils.
Even though Benjamin will be limited by his health this spring, Graham called Benjamin the "headliner" of ASU's offensive signing class and Simon believes the Texas native is the rare player who fits the mold of an every-down running back.
Like Richard, Benjamin possesses the strength and durability to run inside the tackles in a gap-scheme approach, but also has the speed to bounce carries to the perimeter and outrun defenders.
“Without a question, I think Eno is one of the rare guys that we have that we feel like he’s an every down back that has the ability to run inside, is strong, can break tackles, but then he has the speed to get outside and outrun guys and the long speed to hold guys off, to go 70 yards," Simon said.
With Benjamin limited this spring, ASU will have four scholarship running backs available as three-star signee Trelon Smith isn't set to arrive until the fall. Simon said Smith and Turner share similarities in their skill sets, and believes if ASU can use one of those backs as a perimeter weapon and player it can get the ball to in space, the Sun Devils will have a more developed, complete backfield than they had during the 2016 season.
Three key questions for ASU's running backs
1. Can Napier and Simon develop an approach in the running game that maximizes the talents of Ballage and Richard while keeping both running backs satisfied with their opportunities and ability to contribute?
2. Will Ralston become a more viable third option and give the coaching staff confidence he can handle and thrive in an expanded role when Ballage and Richard graduate?
3. Will Turner make a critical second-year leap and give Napier and Simon a dependable, speedy weapon who becomes an asset in the open field? Or will he struggle to adapt to Napier's system and slide down the depth chart when Benjamin and Smith compete at full speed this fall?