This is the second in a series of position analyses for the 2015 Arizona State football team. Coming Friday, a look at the interior linemen.
TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has a spectacular problem. The Sun Devils’ running back corps is so deep that Norvell’s greatest challenge may be to find enough touches and reps for all his players.
“The great thing about our situation is the versatility of all our backs because they can line up all over the field,” Norvell said. “It’s not going to be shocking to me if you look out there and you see three running backs on the field at a time.
“Where they’re dispersed to and how they are utilized? That’s the great thing about playing running back in this offense. When guys come here, they know they’re going to be asked to do a variety of different things.”
Already this offseason, senior running back D.J. Foster has switched primarily to the wide receiver spot, De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes has lined up in the slot at times, and Kalen Ballage has taken reps on defense as the Devil-backer, a rush linebacker whose main job is pressuring the quarterback in coach Todd Graham’s hybrid scheme.
All three of those players will factor prominently in the backfield behind starter and workhorse, Demario Richard, who finished second on the team last season as a freshman with 478 yards on 84 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.
“We definitely feed off of each other,” Ballage said. “It’s nice to see Demario break a run and then I go in and I break a run and them Gump breaks a run… Everybody that we put in is just so talented.
“It’s going to be tough for any team that we play to game-plan for us.”
Demario Richard: When the Sun Devils moved Foster to receiver and assigned some defensive duties to Ballage, it became clear that Richard was going to be the workhorse this season.
Richard took some time getting his legs under him last season, but he rushed for 116 yards against Utah in the eighth game of the season; he had a couple big runs against Washington; 68 yards against Arizona in the season finale and he was named MVP of the Sun Bowl after scoring four touchdowns (two receiving) to help ASU beat Duke, 36-31.
“What sets Demario apart from a lot of the backs that I’ve been around is that he does everything really well,” Norvell said. “He has great hands out of the backfield. He’s a guy that loves pass protection; the physicality. He’s an extremely talented runner with good feet and he’s always going downhill.”
Kalen Ballage, De’Chavon Hayes, D.J. Foster: Norvell calls Ballage a home run hitter whose duties the Sun Devils want to expand.
“He and Demario complement each other so well that it gives us a nice balance in there,” Norvell said.
When the games finally begin, the Devils will likely realize that Ballage belongs primarily on offense. His game-changing ability is too important there for a team that still hasn’t settled identified a big-play receiver.
Hayes is the other back worth watching this season. His running ability earned him the nickname Gump. That same ability has the Devils experimenting with him as a kick returner if he can demonstrate ball security. Like Foster, Hayes will line up all over the field.
It’s a stressful thought for defenses to consider Hayes, Foster and Ballage on the field at the same time. Foster led the team in rushing yards last season with 1,081 on 91 carries (5.6 average) and nine rushing TDs. He also had 62 catches for 688 yards and three TDs.
IN THE MIX
Graham said Wednesday that Ralston, a freshman, won’t redshirt, so he will also be part of the running back depth. That might leave one more spot available and the most intriguing candidate to fill it is Lewis, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound beast from Virginia Beach.
Lewis missed the first five days of camp while awaiting NCAA clearance but he was one of the highest rated recruits in ASU’s 2015 class.
“We’re still evaluating him but obviously coming in a little later has put him behind in just the basic installs,” Norvell said. “He’s working hard and obviously spending as much time as he can getting to know the offense. He’s coming along. He’s gotten more reps as we’ve been pushing the last few weeks so we’ll see how it goes.”