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ASU Football Spring Preview: Running Backs

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With spring practice approaching, we preview ASU’s running back corps.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Oregon Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Spring football is right around the corner. House of Sparky will be providing you content previewing Arizona State’s spring practices. Earlier we took a look at the ASU quarterback situation. Next we preview where the Sun Devils stand at running back.

Overview

While inconsistency at the quarterback position and abysmal defensive production sullied the Sun Devils’ 2016 campaign, one of the few bright spots from the season was the continued production of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Neither player racked up as many rushing yards in the 2016 season as they had during their sophomore campaigns, but the thunder-and-lightning combination the two provided allowed ASU to remain competitive in games it otherwise wouldn’t have been.

With both Richard and Ballage returning to Tempe for their senior seasons, the Sun Devils will once again at least have the certainty of a productive backfield as they continue to try and develop their signal-callers. ASU added another highly-touted running back on the recruiting trail though, and the two Sun Devil senior running backs will have to continue to carry their weight to keep the youngsters on the bench.

Key Returners

Demario Richard: 593 rush yds, 3 TDs, 17 receptions, 136 receiving yds in 11 appearances last season.

Kalen Ballage: 536 rush yds, 14 TDs, 44 receptions, 469 receiving yds, 1 TD in 12 appearances last season.

Nick Ralston: 139 rush yds, 2 TDs in 7 appearances last season.

Tre Turner: Did not make an appearance last season (redshirt).

Who’s New

Eno Benjamin: incoming freshman; arrived on campus as mid-year transfer in January and will be participating in spring practices.

Trelon Smith: incoming freshman, will arrive on campus after his high school graduation.

Keep An Eye On: Todd Graham’s utilization of his freshmen

Out of all the position groups the Sun Devils are reviewing headed into the 2017 season, the running back corps is the one that appears the most cut-and-dry. Ballage and Richard have been excelling as a tag-team since they arrived in Tempe in 2014, and there’s little inclination that either of them are going to have their roles diminished in their senior seasons.

But both Ballage and Richard experienced declines in production from their sophomore seasons, and if you exclude Ballage’s 137-yard, seven-touchdown performance against Texas Tech (he had another touchdown as a receiver against the Red Raiders), the total season numbers for both players are markedly-worse than their 2015 output.

There’s no question that Richard and Ballage have earned enough goodwill with Todd Graham to enter the season as the go-to running backs for Arizona State’s offense, but that’s not to say that they won’t be pushed for playing time by the young up-and-comers sitting behind them.

Benjamin ranked as one of the top recruits out of the state of Texas, dominating the 5A division en route to a consensus four-star rating from the major recruiting services. He chose ASU over Miami, Michigan, Texas and a score of Pac-12 schools. Already on campus as a mid-year enrollee, Benjamin’s primed to enter the fall with the capability to contribute immediately, and that’ll put plenty of pressure on the incumbents to perform.

Trelon Smith - the other running back recruit from ASU’s 2017 class - is likely to spend the 2017 redshirting as he’s yet to arrive on campus. But Tre Turner - a former Mike Norvell recruit - returns as a redshirt freshman and will attempt to work his way into the rotation.

While ASU’s ideal scenario for the 2017 season would be to have their dynamic duo of Ballage and Richard return to their sophomore and junior season form, the reinforcements behind the two seniors are primed to cut into their playing time if the production isn’t there.

Biggest Strength: Versatility

We’ve yet to see exactly how the Sparky offense will evolve - or if it’ll even remain for that matter - following Chip Lindsay’s departure as offensive coordinator. But the Sun Devils were lethal when they operated in the pseudo-Wildcat formation, and relied on it in the red zone as the season wore on and the quarterback situation dissipated.

Ballage and Richard were the key cogs in the Sparky formation’s machine, and while each of them experienced success on the ground when taking the direct snap both players also threw completions out of the Sparky formation. Ballage even collected a touchdown pass to make him the first Sun Devil to tally a passing touchdown, receiving and rushing touchdown in the same season.

Both of the returning seniors boast vastly-different skill sets, and while there will undoubtedly be some growing pains with new OC Billy Napier, the flexibility that Ballage and Richard provide a play caller will manifest itself very nicely come August.

Biggest Concern: Consistency

The beauty of having two starting-caliber running backs on the squad is that Arizona State hasn’t always needed a stellar night from each back to be competitive. When one of the two is playing like his hair’s on fire, the Sun Devils are generally-competitive.

But 2016 saw what happens when neither Ballage or Richard are finding success on the ground, and it wasn’t pretty. Richard opened the season with a 78-yard performance against Northern Arizona and a 109-yard output on the ground against Texas Tech. He excelled against UTSA but once conference play hit, fell off a cliff, only reaching 60+ rushing yards twice over the remaining course of the season.

Ballage didn’t fall off a cliff come conference season like Richard did, but he definitely disappeared throughout conference season. Call it overuse or strong game-planning on the opponent’s part, but after his eight-touchdown, record-breaking performance against Texas Tech, Ballage wasn’t nearly as dangerous a weapon. His best game in conference play came against Washington State, and the 82 yards he accumulated there weren’t enough to beat the Cougars.

Both Ballage and Richard are enormously-talented and continued to display that in 2016, but it was too few and far between for the Sun Devils to be competitive relying on their running backs. It’ll be interesting to see how ASU manages its top running backs in the 2017 season so as to avoid the same drop off they experienced last year.

What it all means: Enjoy the ride

By the time they’re done, Richard and Ballage will have two of the most-decorated careers the Sun Devils have ever received from a running back. The two seniors are the backbone of ASU’s offense and its most-respected leaders, and there’s little reason to think that we’ve seen their best.

With that said, ASU has the luxury of having talent behind Ballage and Richard that will take advantage of their opportunities when they come. ASU fans have been treated to a stellar rushing attack over the most part of past three seasons, and while it may look different come season’s end than we expect today, Arizona State’s running back corps is primed for a bounceback campaign.