When Arizona State's bus pulled out of the parking lot at Arizona Stadium in Tucson last November, a dejected team counted down the minutes until it could step off the bus in Tempe and begin the process of moving onto 2017.
After a humiliating 56-35 loss at the hands of the Arizona Wildcats, most of the Sun Devils were ready to get back to the valley and turn the page.
But not Demario Richard.
ASU's starting running back had a message that was loud and clear and a final destination that was different than that of his teammates. When Richard left the stadium that evening, he wasn't thinking about going back to Tempe. Richard wanted to go home.
“After the season, I wasn’t even worried about nothing else, I was just like, I’m ready to go home," Richard said. "I’m ready to go home. I don’t want to talk about football. When I got home, I made it clear, don’t talk to me about football, don’t ask me about football, don’t ask me how football is going. If you’re not here to talk about this treatment I’m going through, this rehab I’m going through, then I don’t want to talk about football. We can talk about something else.”
The Sun Devils' six-game losing streak to end a season plagued by pain stung fiercely for Richard. A core injury limited Richard's explosiveness and speed, and as he slowed down, so too did ASU.
A team that entered the 2016 season hyping the possibility of producing a pair of 1,000-yard rushers finished 10th in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, as neither Richard nor fellow running back Kalen Ballage achieved the type of success they dreamt about.
The darkness that clouded the way Richard's season ended left him in a state he said he wasn't prepared to emerge from until a week before his return to Arizona. From the night the season ended to the week leading up to his return to Tempe for the second semester of his junior year, Richard said he had no desire to talk about football. So he didn't.
Somewhere along the line, though, a switch flipped for the Palmdale, California native. As he made his way back to Arizona, Richard nursed his way back to health, and he entered the month of March with a fresh perspective.
After the first day of ASU's spring practice slate, it was Richard leaping off the tram shuttling players back from the Kajikawa Practice Facility to the Sun Devils' locker room, singing the praises of the "SEC" vibe new offensive coordinator Billy Napier planned to bring to the program's offense.
Nearing the end of spring now, Richard still boasts a positive outlook, explaining that he and his teammates are ready to take fans by surprise this fall with all of the new wrinkles Napier has introduced.
“It’s cool," Richard said of Napier's playbook. "You’re going to struggle with it at first because it’s a lot of new stuff but once you get it, you got it and you’re good.”
The passion Richard has always had for the game --that same passion he seemingly lost last season-- is back on full display when he arrives at practice each morning. And according to his coaches, his speed and explosiveness are back too.
"I just want him (Richard) to be at his peak from a speed standpoint and explosive power and you can tell a difference," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "I can tell he’s quicker and he’s more explosive.”
The process of regaining his speed didn't take place over night. Richard devoted time and energy to rehabbing his injury, and building back his base this offseason, and to hear recent compliments offered by Graham served as validation for his efforts.
“Just my hard work is paying off, the hard work that I put in over that break period is starting to pay off and the hard work that I put in with Griz (Shawn Griswold) over the winter workouts is starting to pay off and people are starting to take notice of it," Richard said.
Entering his senior season, Richard has amassed over 2,000 career rushing yards, over 500 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns in his ASU career. But even though he's been a featured back, Richard has rarely assumed a leadership role within ASU's offense.
Young for his class, Richard was just 17-years-old as a true freshman and 18-years-old when he posted a 1,000-yard campaign as a sophomore. Now, Richard is going into his senior season as one of the most veteran members of the Sun Devils' roster, and he knows how far he's come.
A self-proclaimed "jerk" during his recruiting process, Richard can't help but look back and laugh at his 16-year-old self, knowing the role he now plays in ASU's program.
For Richard, personal growth has always come over time. Whether it be during the one-month stretch following the end of ASU's 2016 season, or the four-year stretch of his college career, Richard has gone from turning his back to opening up his arms. And come the fall, he'll be ready to embrace a role as a leader for an ASU offense in search of the next group of playmakers.
“From head to toe, I’ve changed," Richard said. "From on the field stuff to off the field stuff. Usually during my freshman, sophomore year, guys coming in, nope I don’t want to host anybody. I’m good. Now, I’m all arms. Come on. What do you want to know? I’m not going to sugarcoat nothing, so they know.”
With Napier heading up ASU's offense, Richard is far from the only back the Sun Devils will depend on this season.
ASU returns all three of its top options from a year ago, including Ballage, who rushed for 536 yards and 14 touchdowns in a campaign in which he tied the NCAA single-game record with eight touchdowns in ASU's victory over Texas Tech.
Since hiring Napier, Graham has indicated he wants ASU to return to a run-oriented approach on offense that highlights the team's backfield depth, an approach the Sun Devils strayed from under Napier's predecessor, Chip Lindsey.
On multiple occasions this spring, Graham and Napier have talked about incorporating more two-back formations into ASU's scheme in hopes of taking advantage of the mismatches Richard and Ballage can present when they're on the field at the same time.
“We’ll play with two backs a lot of the time because of how strong our backs are, because of how deep it is," Graham said.
Graham said this spring, both Richard and Ballage have established the standard for ASU's offense in terms of their practice habits and performances, and he's commended each back for producing explosive plays in the Sun Devils' closed-door scrimmages.
"I think both of those guys are two kind of the same boat. Guys going into their last year, you can tell they’ve matured," Graham said. "Being more consistent every day. When you’re younger you tend to go to practice and whatever mood you’re in, that’s how you practice, and so much more mental maturity from our guys.”
If the Sun Devils do utilize more 20 and 21-personnel looks this fall, ASU will likely look for more creative ways to deploy Ballage --whether it be as a slot back or as a receiver-- because of the danger he presents to defenses in the open field.
At Monday's practice, the Sun Devils had Ballage working on his route running in skill development periods, and lining up as a receiver is something Ballage said he's more than capable of doing.
“I’ve been doing that stuff forever, since I was a little kid, so when they ask me to go out there and do it, I’ll do it just as well as the wide receivers," Ballage said.
Like Richard, Ballage didn't want to open up about the specifics of how frequently he and Richard might take the field together this season, but both players are open to the idea of playing alongside one another. Richard said the opportunity to line up in various formations with Ballage or sophomore Nick Ralston is an exciting proposition because it allows ASU to give all of its backs a chance to create mismatches.
“Those are my brothers, so it’s like, I want to see everybody shine," Richard said. "So now it’s an opportunity with me and him on the field together, I get to be on the field with my brother and we’re both shining at the same time. People can take it how they want to, I just want to see my bro shine, that’s it.”
Though he earned just 32 carries during his redshirt freshman campaign last year, Ralston continues to draw impressive reviews from teammates and coaches for his work ethic and attention to detail.
Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Ralston has streamlined his physique and dropped nearly 30 pounds since the time he arrived at ASU as a true freshman. With a coaching staff that promises to rely on no fewer than three backs this season, Ralston has established himself behind Richard and Ballage thanks to consistent practice habits and his pursuit of perfection.
“Does everything right," junior quarterback Manny Wilkins said of Ralston. "I mean, to a T. He’s somebody who, if a coach tells him, do not look at the ball when we’re going to give you a handoff, he will not even connect with you at all. He will just be looking over here and if you don’t get it to him, you’re wrong. So he’s somebody who is very meticulous about everything he does, whether it’s in the classroom, in the weight room, on the field, in the film room, he doesn’t want to be wrong."
After working for two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009-2010, Napier has served in various capacities on Nick Saban's Alabama staff in five of the last six years. At each stop during his coaching career, Napier said he's relied on a running back-by-committee approach, and that there will be plenty of opportunities for all three of ASU's top backs to go around this fall.
“You will see each and every one of those guys within each game," Napier said of Richard, Ballage and Ralston. "And I’ve had tremendous experience with that in the past with Alabama, we were able to have that production at Clemson, we were able to have that production multiple players at the running back position impacting the game. We’ve got a talented group, like their work ethic, I see the buy in from them and they’re good practice players."
Behind the trio at the top of the depth chart, redshirt freshman Tre Turner and walk-on Jacom Brimhall have been jockeying for reps this spring. Additionally, with four-star signee and mid-year enrollee Eno Benjamin prepared to push his way onto the field this fall and three-star signee Trelon Smith set to enter the fold this August, Graham and Napier believe ASU's running back unit has the potential to be as deep as any group of players on the roster.
Richard said that as far as he's concerned, the Sun Devils are finally as deep as they were when he and Ballage first arrived in 2014, but this year, the unit has a group of players with a wider variety of skill sets than he's seen at any point during his time in the program.
“We had this deep of a group my freshman year," Richards said. "Me, D.J. (Foster), Kalen (Ballage), Kyle Middlebrooks, Deantre Lewis, we were deep my freshman year, and Jacom Brimhall, we were deep my freshman year and we were all getting playing time. We’ve been this deep before, but this is probably the best skill set we’ve had since I’ve been here.”