The days of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage coming out the backfield for Arizona State are gone, and although the pair is leaving behind a combined 5,180 rushing yards, their replacements aren’t hard to find.
Head into the ASU running back’s room and your odds to spot the duo tasked with taking over for one of the best 1-2 tailback punches in ASU history are pretty good – 50-50 to be exact.
The running back’s room was crowded just a few months ago with Richard, Ballage and Nick Ralston (who has now transitioned to linebacker) taking a seat in the small room with three rows of four chairs.
Now, just four reside in the room: One walk-on, fullback Mark “Goose” Cosgrove and the only two scholarship running backs in Tempe right now, Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith.
They know, however, that their days of being able to spread out in the room are only a few months away from being gone. The four three-star tailbacks that the Sun Devils signed as part of their 21-man 2018 signing class will soon be occupying those seats, and running backs coach John Simon’s time.
Benjamin seemed relived at that notion.
“(Right now), he can individually go over every mistake,” Benjamin said about Simon catching everything him and Smith do. “It’s a good thing but it could be a bad thing. I think it’ll pay off in the long run.”
He also added that when those four backs get to Tempe in a few months, he wants Simon to be able to focus on the newcomers without being forced to worry about the four that are at spring camp.
Smith said that him and Benjamin are “stepping up to the plate” right now without much spring depth within the unit, noting that it’s a big advantage for the two.
“We were expecting this coming into spring ball,” he said.
It’s easy to compare Benjamin and Smith to Richard and Ballage -- both pairs, as well as their coaches, do the same, and it’s easy to see why. Benjamin compares Smith to Ballage because of each’s quickness and speed, and in keeping with the analogy, that would leave Benjamin as Richard.
Each had a freshman season that vastly outshined their fellow back – Richard had 352 more yards in his freshman year than Ballage and Benjamin notched 142 yards on the ground to Smith’s mere four – with the possibility of a feature role in their sophomore campaign.
Richard got a modified feature role in his second season, getting about 80 percent of the carries between the two – something that Benjamin seems ready for after showing flashes of his potential towards the end of last season, including netting 52 yards and a touchdown against Colorado.
But, that’s not his goal. After practice on Tuesday, the sophomore back was asked if this was his backfield:
“No Sir,” Benjamin answered. “This is our backfield. Those guys are my brothers. I came in with Trelon so we’ve been working together and our main purpose is to just make this backfield look better as a whole.”
It’s selflessness like that that allows the Wylie, Texas native to see four incoming backs as pieces meant to enhance the group rather than to take his spot – a concept most guys have a tough time grasping.
“That adds to making us better as a whole,” Benjamin said about the incoming tailbacks. “I feel like some guys have different traits that could go well and compliment me a Trelon.”
At the moment, both Benjamin and Smith say the coaches haven’t defined their roles, but Smith says coaches keep comparing the duo to Richard and Ballage – “so, like the 1-2 punch deal,” he said.
Added Benjamin: “We just do a good job of doing what we’re good at.”
Both aren’t treating this spring camp as a competition to beat the other, their trying to better each other, better the running back group and better the team.
Benjamin said that on their way out, Richard and Ballage told each of them to stick together because it won’t work unless they do. Just over a week into spring camp it’s evident that they took those words to heart.
The comparisons will probably stick with Benjamin and Smith for the rest of their time in Tempe, and they don’t want to change anything about that. Smith hopes that the connection and roles of both pairs continue on.
“Why not?,” Smith said. “They were successful here and we plan and becoming successful.”