Make no mistake: The 2017 Arizona State Sun Devils offense can only be as good as its running backs. Seniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard lead a backfield brimming with outstanding potential in Eno Benjamin and an ever-improving threat in Nick Ralston, yet Ballage and Richard will likely carry the weight of the offensive attack on their shoulders alone. The Sun Devils have added receiving weapons to pair alongside N’Keal Harry and will surely depend on a bounce-back performance from Manny Wilkins, yet no offense runs smoothly without productive tailbacks.
Just two seasons ago, Ballage and Richard combined to rush for nearly 1,800 yards — last season was different. ASU used four quarterbacks, multiple offensive schemes and was constantly having to counter its lack of consistent defense by rushing its possessions on the ball. The result was a total of just over 1,000 yards between the two ball carriers. This year, the two seniors seem to be the only backs capable of making a significant difference for the Sun Devils.
Nick Ralston is another interesting name to throw into the mix, although it seems that his potential will always be handicapped by a lack of playing time. That will change, but not during the 2017-18 season - barring injury to those above him.
A couple of impressive Texas recruits have joined Arizona State this past offseason in Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith. It’s unlikely that either - especially Smith with Ralston seemingly sitting at third on the depth chart and Benjamin with an outside shot to get his feet wet at the collegiate level - see significant playing time in 2017-18, but they should have valuable roles within the program moving forward. I see Ralston as taking the 1A to Benjamin’s 1B role next season, with Smith receiving carries here and there as a backup option.
Consistency. Unlike quarterback, secondary, wide receiver or coach, the Sun Devils know what they have in the backfield. A couple of backs that can flourish if given a healthy offensive line and a consistent gameplan.
The uncertainty of what ASU’s offensive scheme will look like next season. Will Napier insist on a new playbook that drifts away from the read option? Will Blake Barnett emerge and force the Devils to adapt to an air-raid or pro type system with the ball? How will either of these things affect the run game, if at all? I’m not entirely sure, and after a few practices, it doesn’t seem like ASU is quite ready to give us the answers to those questions.
What It All Means
The important thing to understand about the upcoming campaign is that Ballage and Richard did not choose to have multiple offensive coordinators over the course of their ASU careers. They didn’t choose to have a revolving door at quarterback and an offensive philosophy designed to clean up after its defense’s mistakes by reaching much too far out of it’s comfort zone. They did choose, however, to stay, providing a rare sense of stability in a program that seems continuously drifting far from it. Many players will cast a significant impact upon the future of the program during the 2017-18 campaign, but it seems that Richard and Ballage will shoulder the heaviest load in guiding the Sun Devils away from mediocrity.