When the pads are put on, the men separate themselves from boys.
That's the sentiment of Arizona State coach Todd Graham, who was pleased with his veteran running back group in the team's first padded practice of spring ball on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
"I thought all of our running backs, Nick (Ralston), Demario (Richard) and Kalen (Ballage), all three, they had a mentality about finishing runs today," Graham said. "Nick has been really impressive for three days.
"It was really competitive today, a lot of explosive plays. This is really the first day. You get excited about people in shorts and stuff and then you get out here and the real men come out on pads, when you put the pads on."
In 2016 ASU's yards-per-carry dropped off from previous seasons under Graham, a sign of broader offensive challenges at quarterback and offensive line, and a serious rash of injuries. This year they're working on getting back to being among the league's better teams in the category.
But running backs weren't the only offensive skill players who drew the coach's attention. After sitting out last season post-transfer, wide receivers John Humphrey Jr. and Ryan Newsome have the ability to improve ASU's overall athleticism at the position. Humphrey had a long run on a speed sweep on Saturday.
"Both of those guys are dynamic with the ball in their hand," Graham said." You like guys that one play, (long) touchdown. We've got quite a few guys who can do that. That's big, having that type of explosiveness."
Graham said Saturday's practice will provide the first really good opportunity to evaluate from film.
The Sun Devils are trying to revamp their defense after consecutive seasons in which they finished last nationally against the pass, and failed to generate turnovers like they did in Graham's early years in Tempe.
There's been some different drills they've worked on in practices to help improve open field tackling, and also a more focused effort in the strip drills that were prevalent last year.
"We're doing the similar drills we did before, we are just doing them together," Graham said. "We're competing. We're doing ball security drills, trying to strip it out, but the offense wouldn't attack the ball the way the defense would. So we're doing competitive drills, doing a little more half line teach stuff. I'm very pleased with how competitive our guys have been and pleased with the detail from which we're coaching with."
ASU didn't tackle to the ground in the team's first padded practice, instead focused on staying high and upright and stopping on thud contact.
-- After not attending practices the first two sessions, senior safety J'Marcus Rhodes took the field on Saturday, but was conditioning.
-- Senior wide receiver Cameron Smith didn't practice the first two days for ASU due to class obligations but dressed out on Saturday. He focused on conditioning during the media observation portion of the practice.
-- Senior safety Marcus Ball did not practice Saturday and has been limited this spring as ASU manages a medical issue that Ball has played with the last two years.