Preparedness/Potential Grade Key
5: All-American level performer
4: First/second team all-league level performer
3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer
2: Fringe Pac-12 performer
1: Non-Pac-12 level performer
Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.
1. Demario Richard (senior) --Even though Richard earned a reputation as one of the most productive backs in the conference as a sophomore, the Palmdale, California native carried too much weight on his frame toward the end of the 2015 season. Last offseason, Richard made an effort to streamline his physique and it showed during spring practices when he was more agile and elusive, receiving praise from head coach Todd Graham and running backs coach John Simon for his commitment to the team's strength and conditioning program.
However, Richard's core injury derailed the progress he made in the offseason, and forced him to endure the most frustrating season of his career. Now, Richard insists he's fully healthy, and though he isn't as slim as he was last spring, Richard appears to have regained some of the explosiveness and strength he was missing last fall.
When Richard is completely healthy and at his best, he's a powerful, durable runner who has the vision and tenacity to run in between the tackles and fight for extra yards, especially once he gets to the second level of a defense. When Richard is in the open field, he has a bulldozer's mentality and would rather run through a defender than around one, and fortunately for him, he possesses the lower body strength to win many of those battles.
For Richard to regain the form he displayed as a sophomore, he'll need to continue to run with a low center of gravity and showcase the type of lateral footspeed that can make him a more versatile weapon in new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's offense.
Though Napier will introduce pro-style concepts that should benefit a runner like Ballage, Richard will still have an opportunity to be the featured back in ASU's offense because he's a natural fit for a one-back spread system. Richard is a strong inside zone runner who has a great feel for cutback lanes and a good understanding of when to change direction, and he's also not going to shy away from contact. While Richard isn't ideally suited for buck sweeps and perimeter run plays, he's more than capable of executing zone, power and lead concepts.
Perhaps the biggest knock against Richard is that he doesn't possess breakaway speed --his longest run last season was 37 yards-- but he does have enough initial quickness and burst to be effective in his role. What separates Richard from some of the other backs on ASU's roster is his broader skill set, which makes him an asset as a pass blocker and as a pass catcher.
Though Richard isn't athletic enough to split out in space and play in the slot like D.J. Foster was, he has solid hands and can sneak out of the backfield on swing routes or leak routes and provide ASU's quarterbacks with a security blanket late in progressions.
After a setback in 2016, Richard is hungry and eager to finish his career on a high note, and is attempting to grow into a role as a leader on an ASU offense that will be built around younger talent. Preparedness grade: 4 / Potential grade: 4.5
2. Kalen Ballage (senior) --Long-considered to be one of the best looking and most athletic players on the Arizona State roster, Ballage has put forth relatively pedestrian numbers to this point in his career when measured against expectations. There are a lot of moving parts associated with that, from the mononucleosis that cost him the first three games of 2015 and snapped his strength and conditioning, to the broader offensive limitations of 2016 that restricted Ballage's production.
As much as anything that has been limiting for him, there is real skepticism on our part that prior ASU offenses were built to showcase Ballage in his best form. An angular 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, Ballage is a pro-style running back who is best served in an offense that has a quarterback under center because the deeper running back alignment and associated play development allows him to get more of a head of steam built up on runs both inside and outside, and access his speed. Like NFL backs Darren McFadden and Demarco Murrray, Ballage is at his best when given the ball on toss sweeps to the outside, and when already running hard on inside runs as he enters the scrum at the line of scrimmage.
Ballage is much better suited for this type of run game than being handed the ball off in a shotgun offset formation or being used in a zone-read offense, for example, and yet those were staples of ASU's offenses in recent years under Mike Norvell and Chip Lindsey. In those types of plays, Ballage's athleticism doesn't show up in the same way. He's more hesitant to the hole and lacks purposeful suddenness and force, which prevents him from breaking tackles at the first level.
Out of the three coordinators that Ballage has had to work with, first-year coach Billy Napier may be the best stylistic fit. Napier has a system that is more willing to bring the quarterback under center and more likely to use two tight end sets in the run game. His chasing outside zone blocking schemes work well for Ballage filling in behind it, and Napier has moved out the speedy back to tight slot alignments and used him as a route runner, which will allow for increased opportunities to get his speed in play, and away from the traffic at the line of scrimmage.
Ballage also has a tendency to get too choppy with his footwork in tighter spaces and be overly keen on delivering a blow to would-be tacklers, even if it's easier and more economical to avoid the players. His vision is such that he needs a longer run up to the hole to be able to fully access it. But when he has this, Ballage is a terrific weapon with the football in his hands. He's got elite open field speed and becomes much more powerful when moving at higher RPMs with his feet. The trick is really figuring out how to put Ballage in the best position to showcase his ability because there's a wide performance gap between plays that do this and plays that don't.
Progressively over the last few years, Ballage has weened himself to some degree off a tendency to want to bounce the ball outside even when it's not designed to be in the play. He's also improved his flexibility and core strength in ways that will help him between the tackles, where he has a lot of surface area and hasn't been as apt to break tackles or get on the second level as quickly as the natural gap scheme style running backs who work effectively out of shotgun offset alignments.
Whereas fellow senior Demario Richard is more of a natural fit for the scheme as an inside zone runner, and more of a innate running back, Ballage is more of an unfinished product, which actually is intriguing because Ballage has quite a bit of room to still develop. One of the ways he did that last season was in the passing game. Lindsey liked to throw the ball to his backs, and Ballage went from 12 catches in 2015 to 44 in 2016 as a result. Preparedness grade: 4 / Potential grade: 4.5
3. Nick Ralston (sophomore) --Following a prolific career at Argyle (Texas) High, Ralston entered the ASU program as a mid-year enrollee in the spring of 2015 after rushing 337 times for over 2,000 yards as a high school senior.
Even though Ralston was incredibly productive at the high school level, it wasn't immediately clear whether he would play running back at ASU as the Sun Devils' coaching staff considered working him at linebacker during his first spring on campus. After ASU made the determination to use Ralston on offense, he initially worked in an H-back/fullback role and practiced with both the tight ends and the running backs.
By the start of Ralston's freshman season, he weighed north of 240 pounds and was too heavy to contribute in a meaningful way in ASU's backfield, and early in the year, he suffered an injury that changed his career arc.
The injury inspired Ralston to streamline his physique and trim down, and the work he put in helped him get down to 220 pounds prior to the start of his sophomore season. Entering last season, it was clear Ralston found a home at running back as he ascended to the third spot on the Sun Devils' depth chart behind Richard and Ballage.
Though Ralston was limited in his role as a redshirt freshman, he showcased traits that led us to believe he's capable of playing the running back position successfully in the Pac-12. As a ball carrier, Ralston is similar to Richard because he possesses solid vision and fits the mold of a spread-style back who is at his best on inside zone plays. Additionally, Ralston has a wide frame coupled with a strong lower body that allows him to punish defenders who try and arm tackle him or come in too high.
Like Richard, Ralston isn't going to hurt opposing defenses by getting to the edge and outrunning second and third level players, but he is a downhill style of back who falls forward upon contact and has a nose for picking up extra yards.
This spring, ASU's coaches and Ralston's teammates praised him for the precision he brings to the table at each practice. Junior quarterback Manny Wilkins said that if he knows Ralston is the back behind him, he needs to be even more detail-oriented with his footwork because Ralston is always in the correct spot, always knows when and where to receive a handoff and is as consistent as any player on ASU's roster.
While he's not necessarily a receiving threat out of the backfield, Ralston is a good option for ASU on third downs because he's a strong blocker and possesses good anticipation skills.
If ASU is able to return to a run-oriented approach under new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, Ralston has the potential to be one of the primary beneficiaries because he should see an expanded role, more opportunities and have another year of offseason conditioning under his belt. Preparedness grade: 3 / Potential grade: 4
4. Tre Turner (redshirt freshman) --Turner was known for his speed in high school, with the Times-Picayune calling him the "best home run threat" of the running backs in the state's 2016 class. He purportedly turned in a 4.38 second 40-yard dash time, and ran in the 4.4s at Florida State and Mississippi State last summer. He was initially committed to Mississippi State before reopening his recruitment and eventually settling on ASU due to its two-sport profile.
As a senior in high school Turner's production decreased to 551 rushing yards on 154 carries (3.6 yards per carry) with six touchdowns and 222 receiving yards on 15 catches with two touchdowns. While he played in 10 games, Turner said he was only healthy in about five games and played the rest with a shoulder injury.
Since he was redshirting and buried on the ASU depth chart there wasn't much of an opportunity to really evaluate Turner in person last year, and that's continued into the spring of 2017. Typically the backups who got reps were walk-ons like Jacom Brimhall and Gil'Scott Jackson, which is reflective of how far Turner still has to go in order to potentially earn playing time into the future.
On film, Turner plays low to the ground and is a patient back who likes to feel his way to the hole and then use an impressive linear burst of speed to try to break runs. He has a good top end gear but is more of an arcing style finesse runner than a violent, aggressive cutter, or a back who transitions at speed, which is an area he'll have to further develop in order to maximize his acceleration and high RPM motor. Right now he's a back who looks good in space, but ordinary in traffic. That doesn't work in the Pac-12 unless it is part of a great overall offense, and in particular, with an elite offensive line and a highly-tailored play calling approach for the personnel.
With a naturally low operation base and the way he feels for run lanes, Turner flows well into space and can gain the edge effectively. This also makes him a good candidate as a stretch zone runner and receiving target on the full range of screens, both inside and out. He projects to have full service ability within the ASU scheme, even though there's not enough work product to really determine his capability as a route runner in more space with how ASU uses its backs in the slot. But he uses his feet a bit like Demario Richard on screens and probably is a similar type of route runner.
What limits Turner is his relative lack of physicality and ability to stay upright through contact. He's also not as elusive a runner as he should be given his lower center of gravity and the type of open field speed he possesses, which yields some concern about his overall vision and instinct. He doesn't have the separating power cuts at speed that enable runners of his type to truly flourish at the high college level and beyond. This can be further refined to some degree though with a lot of lower half and core strength and flexibility work, however. How much will ultimately determine his ceiling. He needs to become more elusive around would-be tacklers, and increase his shiftiness, as well as his power through contact. Preparedness grade: 1.5 / Potential grade: 2.5
5. Eno Benjamin (freshman) --The No. 104 ranked recruit in the Scout300 and the No. 10 ranked running back nationally, Benjamin is the highest-rated back to sign with the Sun Devils in a Todd Graham era that has featured multiple other four-star signees. One of the most productive backs in the country at the high school level, Benjamin showcased a broad skill set that has ASU running backs coach John Simon touting his potential as an every down back in the Pac-12.
Though Benjamin was forced to sit out this spring following a surgery that left him in a walking boot, he was able to enroll early and begin classes at ASU while also beginning the process of assimilating to the college level. While Benjamin couldn't participate in ASU's position drills this spring, he had the opportunity to sit in on meetings, learn new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's playbook and take in Simon's instructions and coaching points off to the side of the Sun Devils' running back drills.
Much like ASU sophomore Nick Ralston, Benjamin had an exceptional workload at the high school level, so the opportunity to take the spring off from a physical standpoint likely didn't have the same type of negative effects it might for a player at a different position. Fortunately for Benjamin, running back is one of the easier spots on the field for freshmen to contribute, and he should still have plenty of time to get in playing shape prior to August because he announced via Twitter he's been cleared to participate in ASU's strength and conditioning program this summer.
On tape, Benjamin demonstrates plenty of physical tools that suggest he'll compete for playing time immediately if he's healthy, even in a backfield that returns its top three backs from a season ago. Though Benjamin may not see extensive opportunities as a true freshman, he has the type of advanced footwork needed to be successful on inside zone plays and the vision to find cutback lanes when presented. Benjamin also has the acceleration to hit make opposing defenders pay for overrunning gaps and the quick-twitch burst to break runs to the outside and win footraces in the open field.
What stands out about Benjamin's abilities are that stylistically, he's similar to ASU senior Demario Richard because both players have comparable frames and broad skill sets, but Benjamin has better top-end speed and the versatility to make defenders miss or run through defenders at the second and third levels of a defense.
At the high school level, Benjamin wasn't just an impressive ball carrier. He showcased a commitment to pass blocking and the quickness needed to vacate the backfield and become a target for his quarterback on routes that indicates he has the capability of becoming a full-service back down the line.
One of the attributes that makes Benjamin a good fit for an 11-personnel, shotgun, no-huddle offense is that he grew accustomed to taking handoffs from offset shotgun alignments in high school and demonstrated the ability to hit the hole at top speed. This is a challenge for many backs, including ASU senior Kalen Ballage, but Benjamin has enough initial power and agility to take a handoff, read a defense and get upfield in a hurry. Additionally, when a blocking scheme breaks down at the line of scrimmage, Benjamin has the lateral quickness to adjust a running lane and make something out of nothing, which is one of the many reasons why he found such tremendous success at Wylie East. Preparedness grade: Incomplete / Potential grade: Incomplete
Summary: After failing to statistically build off of their sophomore seasons, both Richard and Ballage had their potential grades reduced from 5 to 4.5. Neither player averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry in 2016, and while some of their challenges as ball carriers were directly related to the rest of ASU's offensive struggles, their inability to run the ball more effectively is still relevant. Nevertheless, both Richard and Ballage are both capable of having great seasons in 2017, and either player could make a push toward the top of the Pac-12 rushing chart or the conference's yards from scrimmage leaderboard if the Sun Devils' offense begins to click. Behind the seniors, Ralston has established himself as a solid option in the Pac-12, especially as a third running back, while Turner still has a very raw skill set and needs more repetitions to challenge for meaningful playing time. Because Benjamin did not participate in ASU's spring slate, he receives an incomplete grade.