The first time the Arizona State Sun Devils (2-3, 1-1 Pac-12) had senior running back Kalen Ballage take a direct snap last year against Texas Tech, some thought it would be a seldom-used set to throw off defenses.
Then it kept happening.
Against the Red Raiders, Ballage had six touchdowns from what has become known as the Sparky formation as part of a record-setting eight touchdown game in 2016.
Through the rest of the season, Ballage and senior running back Demario Richard both took a considerable amount of snaps behind center, resulting in even more big plays and touchdowns, including one passing from Ballage to tight end Kody Kohl.
The variance of playcalling out of the Sparky a season ago kept defenses on their heels, Richard said its effectiveness comes from the back’s ability to read defenses better when taking a direct snap instead of relying on a handoff or pitch.
“I got a little more time because I have the ball quicker,” Richard said. “You can let everything develop right in front of you.”
ASU had used it effectively through the season’s first four weeks, but with redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins banged up in the first half against Stanford last week, the Sparky formation came into the forefront, once again.
On six plays out of the Sparky, three went for first downs, one was a touchdown run by Richard and one was a 14-yard touchdown pass from sophomore receiver N’Keal Harry to junior tight end Ceejhay French-Love.
When Ronnie Brown and the Miami Dolphins took the NFL by storm with the Wildcat formation in 2008, the success was short-lived, as coaches found a way to neutralize backs. The Sun Devils haven’t faced that same problem as of yet.
That’s because the Sparky is ever-evolving, according to Ballage.
“We just continue to practice the details of that formation,” Ballage said. “The scout (team) tries to give us looks the defenses might come up with and we try to think of a way to challenge that.”
The Sun Devils don’t appear to be done throwing wrenches in the Sparky, as Richard not-so-subtly hinted at redshirt junior receiver Jalen Harvey possibly taking snaps there at some point this season.
But the biggest thing ASU does to catch defenses out of position has nothing to do with who is lined up behind center when the ball is snapped, but where they start in the formation.
“I think a big part of it is we usually come out in a normal formation and then we’ll shift to it,” Ballage said. “The defense has a certain call for a specific formation, and then we shift to something completely different and it kind of catches them off-guard.”
But just like anything else in football, it’s about who wants it more.
“At the end of the day, you still have to line up and stop it,” Richard said. “Whether you gameplanned for it, or not. We’re still going to line up and do what we’ve got to do.”