John Simon has dealt with this problem before. That is, if you consider it a problem.
Simon, Arizona State’s running backs coach, oversees a backfield featuring Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. The Sun Devils’ senior duo forms a tandem which not only rivals that of any Pac-12 school, but is arguably as dynamic as any one-two punch in the country.
On John Simon’s past success
The situation presented to Simon at ASU rivals that of his final season as running backs coach at Southern Miss, when he managed a backfield of Ito Smith and Jalen Richard — two rushers each capable of serving as their team’s lead back.
The results then: A combined 2,226 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on 6.25 yards per carry between Richard and Smith, who each crossed the century mark. The effort carried the Golden Eagles to a 9-5 record after finishing 3-9 the year before, and their collaborative receiving total of 799 yards and five touchdowns only furthers the idea that an offense can accommodate high-level production from two star backs.
“I think you just have to utilize guys to the strength of their skill set,” Simon said after a spring practice in April. “The more guys you have that can play and feed off each other, it’s better for them, it’s better for the team, and it allows guys to keep their body fresh, and allow guys to perform at a higher level.”
On Jalen Richard’s experience under Simon
Jalen Richard parlayed Simon’s tutelage into an NFL career now in the early phases of taking off. In 2016, he signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent after his final season at Southern Miss, emerging as a key weapon for the Raiders’ offense during his rookie year.
The former Golden Eagle visited a Sun Devils spring practice session in April, and spoke with Simon’s new lead workhorses to give them “a little bit of advice” ahead of their senior campaigns.
“I watched some of their film with Simon,” Richard said, before crediting his former coach and his teachings as a main reason he reached the NFL. “I just wanted to basically reiterate everything else coach Simon reiterated to them. Sometimes it’s different hearing it from a coach, but it’s really different when you hear from somebody that actually uses it and plays in the league. By me doing that, I feel like it’ll really boost their confidence, and they’ll continue to develop.”
Demario Richard said the conversation was helpful.
“He was basically correcting us on what we need to do on film,” said Richard, a 1,000-yard rusher for ASU in 2015. “It’s just little stuff we can take, and we’re gonna take that and run with it.”
Running with that advice begins with utilizing the direction of Simon, whose most-pertinent lesson is to maximize each play, according to his former player.
“If the defense gives you two yards, make sure you get that two yards,” Jalen Richard explained. “Anything after that is you being special and being he who you are.
“If I can take a two-yard into a five-yard play, that’s great. That’s being great,” he continued. “That’s being special. That’s what I was explaining to (Ballage and Demario Richard): If it’s one yard, don’t always look for the home run. If it’s one yard, take what they give you and anything after that is extra. That’s what I’m encouraging them to do: Maximize every play they have.”
On splitting touches
Making the most of each play becomes even more important when playing time has to be divvied up. Since they arrived, Ballage and Richard have capped each other’s touches almost as well as they’ve complimented one another.
While it’s common across the the country—and the sport of football itself in this day and age—to see backfields deployed by committee, there’s often one back “who usually runs the show.” ASU’s current running back corps wields a unique situation, since neither top rusher has necessarily secured a majority share and the lead duties are essentially halved.
Having experienced the dilemma before at Southern Miss, Jalen Richard said it’s valuable for Ballage and Richard to have a timeshare because “when you’ve got two backs that can play in the league and are splitting carries, it’s added competition.
“It takes away from your reps,” he says, “but it adds in your competition level. Every time you get out there, you wanted to stay out there.”
Perhaps the competition level has been raised. Although last year—Simon’s first season directing ASU’s tailbacks—production was mixed. Ballage enjoyed a career-best year, highlighted by a record-setting eight-touchdown performance, while Richard’s statistics planed, in part due to injury, after rushing for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns on 209 attempts the season before.
Maximizing the Ballage-Richard coupling in Simon’s second year will be predicated on how well their touches can be balanced. The newly-promoted assistant head coach said he thinks the two can benefit from one another and ease the workload.
“They can go out, get a little rest, and you know you’ve got a guy that can come in and perform at a higher level,” Simon said. “You should always be able to get them at their best.”
On being weapons in the passing game
The best running backs in football are often multidimensional. Simon wants Ballage and Richard to run freely, but another area he wants his backs to excel is as receivers, notably as route runners.
Simon is no stranger to the sport’s increased emphasis on pass-catching ability, serving as a prime example himself having transitioned from running back to wideout during his senior season at Louisiana Tech, where he played from 1998-2001.
He caught a pass in a then-NCAA record 36 consecutive games during his Bulldog career.
To Simon, route running is an art, and teaching it is something he takes pride in. It’s paying early dividends for Jalen Richard, whose talent as a receiver enabled him to etch out at role with the Raiders. He caught 29 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in Oakland.
“I think that’s what allowed Jalen to be special and has given him the opportunity to play on Sunday,” said Simon.
It’s a good sign for each of ASU’s lead tailbacks, who tout the ability to catch the ball.
The trait was apparent in Richard’s game early in his career, recording 13 receptions for 156 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman before hauling in 32 catches for 309 yards and three scores as a sophomore. Ballage’s receiving ability was unearthed for the first time last season when he posted 44 catches, 469 yards and a touchdown.
“The one thing that a lot of guys don’t focus on is the route running part of it,” said Simon. “In today’s time, they’re asking a running back today to do that. One of the mismatches you have on a football field is when you have a linebacker that’s covering a running back. When you have a guy that can (run routes well), it’s an advantage for the offense, and it’s an advantage for them as a skill set to have.”
On skill set and coexistence
Pass-catching may be one area which makes them similar, but in many ways Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage differ. Jalen Richard offered his scouting report of the ASU duo:
“Seven (Ballage): he’s big, fast, physical. D-Rich: he’s kinda like me — A smaller, but powerful back. I like his quickness, I like his toughness, and I like his break-tackle ability. In tight spaces, you see him quickly just change directions, and arms are moving off of him. And Seven, he can just run away from anybody.”
The analysis isn’t all too new for Sun Devil fans. In fact, their personalities are likely the most contrasting things about the two as Ballage is often reserved, while Richard is more or less the team’s emotional delegate.
Contrasting identities and overlapping roles have been feared to drive ASU’s top rushers from one another. But after practice, the visiting Jalen Richard was talking and laughing with the two, and said he thought they seemed like they’re great friends.
He referenced the bond he had with his counterpart in Smith, who impeded on Richard’s play time despite being two years younger.
“Me and Ito still talk to this day,” Richard said. “It’s great competition, it’s a friendly competition. If Ito would score one, I would be like, ‘Okay, I’m finna come back at you!’ It was always a competition on who had the most yards every game, who had the most touchdowns every game. And by us competing amongst another, we were able to help the team win. So they’ve gotta be the same thing. They’ve gotta channel into that, and I feel like they’re doing a great job.
“I was talking to them—they laugh, they talk trash to each other. Obviously, both of them want to be starters, and both of them want to go to the league, so it’s actually a bigger, a better push for them that they have two guys that Simon and I both believe can play on the next level.”
On whether the duo can succeed
The 2017 season is the last chance for Ballage and Richard to make any final impressions on NFL scouts. After ASU’s spring game, Simon asserted the time is now for the two to expend any ounce of knowledge they’ve come into over the course of their careers.
“The biggest thing for those guys is to just continue to work on the details,” Simon said. “They’ve both been committed to asking. The difference this year is them asking more of, ‘How can I be better? What can I do to improve? What can I do to be better?’ They’ve done an excellent job of coming out this spring and understanding what the focus was, and they’re more focused on getting better. So I’m excited about that.”
Jalen Richard reiterated the two must maximize their respective skill sets by taking advantage of each opportunity presented.
“Every time you get out there, you wanted to stay out there,” he said. “You wanted to out-do the other person. It’s good competition.
“They just need to continue to stick to what they know, and they’ll be fine.”