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ASU Football: Chemistry and competition fuel a shiny new backfield

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The Sun Devils boast three electric running backs for 2020.

Daniyel Ngata accelerates during a fall preseason practice.
Courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

After the first full week of preseason practice, it’s clear that under offensive coordinator Zak Hill’s complex scheme, Arizona State’s running backs will be more dynamic and versatile than in previous years.

Over the past two seasons, Eno Benjamin accounted for over 80 percent of the Sun Devils’ carries. That workhorse role doesn’t appear to be one ASU will retain in 2020. Instead, the team’s three-headed monster figures to divvy Benjamin’s massive workload.

Daniyel Ngata, DeaMonte Trayanum, and Rachaad White have all received first-team reps so far this fall.

There is no clear-cut starter, at least not yet, and the competition has made an impression on all three backs. Although not a single member of the backfield has taken a snap of Power-Five football, that hasn’t appeared to hinder their progress.

“All three of them are very football savvy and they’re doing everything right,” running backs coach Shaun Aguano said. “It’ll come down to the wire.”

Ngata, who ESPN ranked as the No. 7 running back prospect nationally, has embraced the opportunity. The 5-9, 185-pound freshman is the smallest of the group on paper, but those measurables pale in comparison to the beefy resume he generated in Folsom, California.

Ngata racked up 4,176 all-purpose yards, averaged 8.4 yards per carry, and scored 52 touchdowns as a three-year varsity starter. Ngata’s older brother, Joseph, is a wide receiver for Clemson. He is also the cousin of former Sun Devil pass catcher and San Francisco 49ers first-round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk.

Trayanum, the fourth-overall prospect out of Ohio, is no stranger to success. Trayanum, who stands at 5-foot-11 and weighs 230 pounds, won three state titles while starting four years at Hoban.

The unanimous four-star recruit rushed for 1,313 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging an incredible 12.4 yards per attempt.

Both Trayanum and Ngata appeared in the seven spring practices ASU conducted in March before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the university’s facilities.

While White’s recruiting process wasn’t as heavily documented as the two freshmen, the junior contributes knowledge and experience at the collegiate level. As a sophomore for Mt. San Antonio College, White garnered 1,264 rushing yards, 216 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns.

White previously committed to UCLA last year before he announced his de-commitment in February. He officially decided to join the Sun Devils in May. White was recruited by co-defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce, who graduated from Mt. SAC in 1998.

Competition for the team’s feature role between the three remains a driving force, but there are no fault lines that divide them. ASU’s backfield understands how much they can learn from each other and are in constant discussion on ways to improve.

“When one comes off, we talk about it with each other and we discuss what could’ve happened and what did happen,” Trayanum said. “We always offer tips [to each other], never holding each other down, honestly just wanting the best out of all of us.”

“The other day I walked into our room and all three of them are going over pass protections together,” Aguano said. “You don’t see that when they are competing for a job. It is a special room and hopefully it stays like that all through the season.”

Rachaad White runs with the football during preseason workouts
Courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics

Individually, the backs have accomplished a lot. But since they have arrived in Tempe, that individuality has vanished.

When talking to the media, each running back placed a heavy focus on the success of the room and how collectively they could punish the rest of the Pac-12 as the conference’s best rushing attack.

“Our running back room is crazy,” Ngata said. “I don’t think people really know all the capabilities of all three of our running backs can do. We’re going to open up eyes just because every running back in that room has their own skill.”

“Every time one of us steps in the backfield, I feel like the defense is getting something different,” said Trayanum. “It’s a happy, healthy running back room and we’re all going out there just competing for a job every day.”

Hill plans to utilize all three backs and recognizes the diversity of talents he has to employ in his offense. Hill described Trayanum as “powerful” and “tough to bring down,” while mentioning his excitement about watching the young bruiser in live-action.

He praised Ngata for his soft hands, good balance, and sees him as a threat on outside passing plays. For White, Hill commended his elusiveness and understanding of tempo.

“I think that there’s a lot of backs, a lot of styles that will work and it’s really just those guys making plays,” Hill said. “And I’m not concerned with, ‘We got to have this type of back.’ We just need a productive back.”

ASU has churned out a flurry of NFL talent at the running back position over the last five years. The production of D.J. Foster, Kalen Ballage, and Eno Benjamin has translated to spots on NFL rosters for all three former Sun Devils. Already, many have started to assess how the new backs stack up to the team’s past playmakers.

Ngata, who coach Herm Edwards likened to Benjamin last week, prefers to avoid the comparisons.

While he appreciated the praise, Ngata believes his current backfield is a new product and doesn’t want to be defined by the success of professionals that came before him. This trio’s chemistry, proficiency, and star power just have a different feel for the freshman. Said, Ngata,

“I’ve never seen anything like it before.”