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Maturity, patience have helped Demario Richard find joy in football again

Arizona State running back Demario Richard (4) scores a touchdown over Oregon linebacker Troy Dye during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Demario Richard broke down in the locker room after Arizona State’s 41-30 win over Colorado on Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.

It was his grandmother’s birthday and the six-month anniversary of his aunt’s death.

“I tried to keep my mind off of it as much as possible but my dad ended up calling me and said, ‘you know it’s been six months?'” Richard said Tuesday. “It kind of brought tears to my eyes and then I was talking to my grandma the whole day that day and that was her first daughter that passed.

“I knew my grandma was watching. I knew she was kind of balling out in tears, too, after the game so it was emotional.”

Richard honored his late aunt, amassing 141 of his career-high 189 yards rushing in the fourth quarter, along with a touchdown, to help the Sun Devils post the program’s 600th all-time win. There was more behind that emotional post-game release, however.

It’s been a trying two seasons for Richard, who rushed for 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015 but battled through a core injury that lingered the entire 2016 season, limited him to 593 rushing yards and darkened his mind.

Richard pronounced himself happy and healthy at the start of the season after frequent talks with running backs coach John Simon, but the opportunities weren’t always there for him the first half of the season in a crowded backfield with Kalen Ballage, and in new offensive coordinator Billy Napier’s game plan.

Richard has only topped 20 touches three times this season, but it’s no accident he has recorded his three highest yards-per-carry averages the last three weeks against Utah (5.2), USC (4.7) and Colorado (7.6).

“I was healthy at the beginning of the season but you’ve just got to be patient,” he said, laughing, as he thought about how difficult it had been. “I got stronger as the season was progressing. The stuff we did over the summer, the stuff we did over the winter, it really helped me. [Coach Napier] molded me into practicing like a pro, him and coach Simon.”

Simon and Napier had a plan against Colorado. They wanted to keep Richard fresh for the fourth quarter to come in and wear down the tired Buffaloes, who led 27-17 after three quarters.

“It’s a beautiful thing when you see it come to fruition,” Simon said. “It worked out for him. It worked out for us as a unit. D-Rich did a great job of trusting coaching and having his eyes and believing that the offensive line was going to make the blocks and he hit it downhill. He played hard and played with steam so it was good to see that kid have the success in that game that he hadn’t had for a while.”

Richard insists he never begrudged Ballage the spotlight when it was on him last season, but Simon said Richard sees an even bigger picture now.

“That’s the difference in him, being willing to accept whatever role that we put him in,” Simon said. “His heart is different. Before the game started, I talked to him and said, ‘listen, this is how we’re starting the game off.’ I said ‘if it’s important to you that you start I’ll start you,’ but he said ‘coach that doesn’t matter’ and that’s what I want to see from him, that it doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the opportunity and having a chance to perform.”

With three or four games left in his ASU career, Richard hopes the last few weeks are part of a college crescendo.

“I don’t want to be on a roller coaster the whole year,” he said. “I just want to keep progressing, going up from here.”

All the same, Richard smiled when asked if he is enjoying football again.

“Yeah, I’m having fun,” he said. “I’m out there communicating and having fun. I’m just back to being me, regular me, coming out, joking around but also, when it’s time to get serious, everybody is looking at me like ‘you know what time it is.’

“I’m back to being that same kid I was freshman year, but I’m just a lot more mature and more understanding of the game.”

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