Often times, it's best to keep it in the family.
When last season's running backs coach, Larry Porter, left to take the same job at Texas, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham was left with a vacancy on his staff. He soon filled that opening with not only a proven and experienced option, but one that shares his DNA: his son Bo. The younger Graham served as ASU's On-Campus Recruiting Coordinator in 2012, but his resume is filled with success in the backfield.
While serving as Tulsa's running backs coach under his dad, Bo oversaw top-notch units in 2007 and 2008, with the Golden Hurricane leading the nation in total offense each year, including a No. 5 finish in rushing in 2008. Graham was the position coach for the exceedingly productive backfield tandem of Tarrion Adams (over 3,000 career yards) and Charles Clay.
Now he inherits one of the Pac-12's deepest and most talented units. Marion Grice is coming off a 19-touchdown season, D.J. Foster topped 1,000 yards of total offense as a true freshman, and Deantre Lewis finally appears to be back to his explosive ways. Needless to say, Bo Graham has a lot of weapons at his disposal this season.
I caught up Graham after practice to get his thoughts on his loaded backfield, how he plans to use them, and what new wrinkles fans should watch for in 2013.
How has it been moving back to the sidelines as a coach?
Bo Graham: It's been great. I've been around football my entire life, so it comes naturally to me. Just being around the young guys and taking more of an on-field approach has been nice for me. I've definitely enjoyed it.
What has been your evaluation of the running backs this spring?
BG: We've really had an emphasis on downhill runs the first couple of weeks. Right now, we've got some guys banged up with minor injuries here and there. But I think we've accomplished our goal of coming in here and establishing the run game we're going to use next fall. It's been a smooth transition. The guys have picked up the new things well. We're feeling confident at this point going into next year.
With spring ball nearly complete, what areas of improvement top your list come fall camp?
BG: From the backfield, protections. Doing the dirty work. Technical, pass pro technique footwork and things like that. The small things and minor details. Catching the ball out of the backfield, and developing guys' roles. That's the biggest thing— developing the finer details.
You've led some prolific backfields in your career. Where do you think this year's group rank among those you've coached?
BG: I think athletically, the potential is through the roof. With both DJ and Marion having a year in the weight room, physically, they're much further along. I think, potentially, we have the athletes, as long as we do our jobs as coaches putting them in positive situations, these guys have the potential to be the best in the country.
The backs were a crucial part of the passing game last season (34% of the teams' receptions). Will they be prime targets once again?
BG: Definitely. We have several guys, maybe three or four guys, who are well polished at multiple positions. If they go outside the box and line up at a wide receiver position, they fit that skillset well. That's something I haven't had in the past, maybe one guy. To have three guys with that skillset allows us to be very versatile, and I see us being very involved in the passing game.
Do you envision Marion Grice being the featured back, or will the team use more of a committee/hot hand approach?
BG: The best thing about our backs is that we can do either or. If we're going to split someone out, DJ is going to go first, but Marion has the ability to do the same things, as well as Deantre. Right now, Marion is taking that role and will take more of the load to start out, but DJ has the ability to do the same thing. We feel confident in both of these guys in either role.
What do you think is the ceiling for Marion Grice?
BG: His potential is through the roof. You can't underestimate a full year of development. Coming through the junior college ranks, he never really went through an offseason. Then he joined us late in the summertime and was really thrown into the fire. He never had an offseason training regimen. He's had that, and you can see in his body the change. When he breaks away on some of the long runs this spring, you see an extra gear. Physically, he is much further along, and his potential is going to be much more than it was last year.
Is there any concern of the team's struggles at wide receiver negatively impacting the play of the backs?
BG: The run game works with the passing game. The more we can put guys on the outside at the wide receiver position, if we can get some guys out there that defenses in our conference respect, then that's going to help us in the run game. In order for us to be the best, our passing game and run game have to work together, and a lot of that depends on the development we've had at the wideout position this spring and the guys coming in this fall.
One of the big stories of the spring is the return to form of Deantre Lewis. How will he fit in to the backfield plans in 2013?
BG: Deantre fits the mold of being able to do the things DJ does and do the things that Marion does. He can be a guy in the backfield and he can also split wide. He's athletic enough to run vertical routes, and win the one-on-ones in space. He's a guy that can do a lot of different things for us. I would picture him just being the next guy in the game, whether it's for DJ or Marion. He can do both of those things. We have the ability to be multiple in our personnel groups. He can be involved in that. We could have all three of them on the field.
What new wrinkles should fans be on the lookout for from the running backs?
BG: We've worked really hard on our screen game. Obviously, getting involved in the passing game—wheel routes, vertical routes out of the backfield. We really want to take advantage of our athleticism. The biggest thing, and the most improvement you'll see is our pass protection and doing those things not everyone wants to do. We really tried to concentrate on our weaknesses. I know these guys can make plays in the open field, but being able to hold up in pass protection, that's going to help us down the road. That's what I'm looking forward to: Improvement in the pass protection and the small fundamentals and techniques.
What will be the biggest X-factor for the running backs this fall?
BG: That's hard to say. I think those three guys that you're talking about are going to be involved. I think they're all going to provide explosive plays, some how and some way. Being able to present those guys in a variety of different ways. Now that they're in the second year in the system, they're not on chapter one, they're on chapter eight in understanding the offense as a whole. You'll see more multiplicity on how we put them in our schemes.