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Running backs Ballage, Richard hope to help ASU bounce back from tough season

Manny Wilkins and Kalen Ballage share a laugh during practice. (Photo by Joshua Clark/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. — It may be the year of the quarterback in the Pac-12, but coming into the season for Arizona State, all eyes were on the running backs.

That will still be the case for Saturday night’s game against San Diego State at Sun Devil Stadium.

The senior duo of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard came into the year healthy and ready for the dominance everyone has expected since their sophomore seasons.

Those expectations were echoed by Ballage in the week leading up to ASU’s season-opening win against New Mexico State.

“Really big expectations … we’re a very experienced group,” Ballage said. “Me and Demario have played since we were freshmen in every aspect: special teams, offense, And so we have the opportunity to go out there and show our body of work that we have been stacking on top of each other for the last three, four years.”

It didn’t take long for those aspirations to be dampened. Although Ballage had a solid game in the opener, rushing for 79 yards and two scores, six others carried the ball a total of 22 times for zero yards.

Those statistics are concerning for a team hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s disappointing output for the running back core.

Richard carried the ball just one time for negative yards before suffering an apparent leg injury and missing the rest of the 37-31 victory over the Aggies. He was back on the practice field this week.

That image combined with inconsistent play by the offensive line have fans concerned.

Ballage exploded in week two last year, scoring an FBS record-tying eight touchdowns, but finished second in total yardage to Richard, who had 400-plus fewer yards from the previous season due to a nagging hip injury.

Success this season will hinge on the Sun Devils’ ability to run the ball.

A big reason the team failed to reach .500 last season was its struggling defense, a reality that distracted many from noticing the offense’s inconsistent running game.

In their seven losses, the Sun Devils averaged 79 yards per game, rushing for less yards than their opponents six out of seven times. They were held under 100 yards four of those games, including a measly 15 yards in a 44-18 loss to Washington.

In comparison, the team averaged 205 yards per game in its five wins, with its lone sub-100 yard game coming in a 23-20 victory over UCLA.

One major difference in 2017, however, is the depth in the backfield. The Sun Devils are better equipped to deal with injuries.

Todd Graham and his staff added two top prospects out of Texas in the form of Eno Benjamin and Trelon Smith to join former Texas recruit Nick Ralston as backups to Richard and Ballage.

Fans didn’t see much from Smith, Ralston or Benjamin in the season opener, but they have performed well throughout training camp and the right people have noticed.

“That is a very talented group,” Graham said. “That’s one thing, you can get excited about that. I get more excited about how they developed as far as their character, their toughness.”

Ballage had high praise for the freshmen as well.

“(Benjamin’s) the real deal, him and Trelon,” Ballage said. “Those guys are guys that are extremely talented and they’ll step right into their roles, you know, as me and Demario leave. Them along with Nick (Ralston), those guys will make a lot of plays in the future.”

Still, it is not ideal for a team looking for a bounce back year to rely on freshmen running backs leading the way, and don’t count on Richard allowing that to happen.

He led the team in rushing yards while playing through injuries last season, and with this being his last season of college football, he will be even more motivated.

“Knowing that it’s the last one, you know you only get one senior year,” Richard said. “You just got you leave everything on the field.”

Considering the talented offenses in the Pac-12 this season, the best defense may be to keep those offenses off the field as much as possible, and that starts with the ability to run the ball and control the clock.

Ballage, Richard and the rest of the running backs may be the team’s best chance at success this season. He and Ballage are hungry, he said.

“We come in every year with a chip on our shoulder, but with that said, it’s our last year. We don’t want to go out how we’ve been going out. We just want to win.”

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