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Young ASU running backs ‘impressive as heck’ in season debut

Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin (3) tries to elude the tackle of UTSA defensive back Clayton Johnson during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

Just minutes after Arizona State finished its Tuesday practice in the hot sun, running backs coach John Simon paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes, stopping briefly while giving his assessment of ASU’s performance on the ground in its season-opener.

Against UTSA on Saturday, the Sun Devils’ young stable of tailbacks, which had just 25 combined career carries entering this season, shined. Sophomore Eno Benjamin, making his first career start, was the workhorse and racked up 131 yards in the 49-7 win.

As he talked, Simon seemed to be just as worried with the perspiration dripping down his face as he was about Benjamin and the other running backs’ ability to handle a full-scale workload.

“Eno, ever since he’s been playing football, has been used to playing a high volume,” Simon said. “I was more concerned about how he was going to respond to the workload that he had last year.”

Which is to say, a very light one.

In 2017, Benjamin served as the understudy to the ASU’s senior tandem of tailbacks Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. A former four-star recruit who amassed over 4,000 rushing yards in his high school career in Wylie, Texas, Benjamin received just 24 attempts in his freshman campaign.

While he hinted at his potential in small samplings last fall, his first career start and 100-yard game Saturday showed off his full range of skills.

On his first carry of the night, he followed center Cohl Cabral through the right side of the offensive line for 18 yards. On the next drive, he pressed up to the line of scrimmage before planting hard, exploding around the left edge and spinning through tacklers downfield for a monster gain of 34 yards. He finished the night with four carries of 10-plus yards and caught a touchdown pass in the third quarter to help the Sun Devils bury an overmatched UTSA defense.

“That’s been a long time coming,” Benjamin said. “I prepared well for this moment. Coaches put me in a great position, so I’ve just got to go out there and show it.”

Benjamin waited patiently, albeit eagerly, for an opportunity like this, to be the feature back of a major college program. An offseason injury last year slowed Benjamin’s development and led Simon to put the then-freshman on a pitch count. Benjamin’s first season was focused on progress, not production and Simon got Benjamin to buy into his teachings.

“Everything since day one has been nothing but real (with him),” Benjamin said of Simon. “Even if it’s critiquing me as hard as he can or even just complimenting me just a little bit, I give a lot of thanks to him.

“I think running back is a lost art today. You get guys that don’t play that position that think it’s a pretty easy position to play but if you haven’t been back there it’s something hard that you can’t speak of unless you’ve done it. That’s another reason why I’m here. Coach Simon’s been there, he knows how it is. He started from the bottom and worked his way to the top so he knows about the grind and how to get there.”

Benjamin’s skill set is flush. He has the size and speed of an every down back and reads the field well, giving him the ability to identify holes or improvise if one doesn’t open. Coach Herm Edwards completed his balance, calling him a “complete” back on Monday. Edwards added that the sophomore sits in on film sessions in the offensive linemen’s room as well as his own.

“He holds himself to a high standard in his preparation and how he plays and how he prepares,” added Simon. “He’s open and looking for a high volume of work. I have no concerns for him at all.”

Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Floyd didn’t have to wait nearly as long to register his first signature outing. The undersized junior college transfer needed no grace period in his introduction to FBS football, reeling off 79 yards on nine carries during ASU’s Week 1 win.

“If you look at his body type (5-foot-7, 169 pounds), it wouldn’t fit the DNA (of a traditional running back) but there’s always the exception to the rule,” Edwards said of Floyd Monday. “When I watched him in junior college, I said, ‘OK, I don’t worry about DNA with this one, he’s a football player, he can help us. He’s got some talent.’”

Based on Saturday’s game, Benjamin and Floyd have the makings of an effective one-two punch. Floyd isn’t so much a change of pace compared to Benjamin — both are plenty quick — as he is a change of style. Where Benjamin will lower his head and speed through tacklers, Floyd can dance his way around them.

“Eno’s my guy,” Floyd said. “It feels good that we can stay fresh because we have (freshman running back) AJ Carter with us too. Coach Simon does a great job of rotating guys, just keeping our legs fresh. We each have a different unique skill set. So we just apply that to the field, we’re a dangerous group of backs.”

Simon said ASU’s running backs weren’t perfect Saturday. Alignment was sometimes sloppy and both Benjamin and Floyd appeared to miss blocks in pass protection on several occasions.

But after Richard and Ballage grinded through an underwhelming and unexplosive campaign last year (ASU ranked just sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense and seventh in yards per carry), Saturday’s start to the 2018 year offered encouraging signs that the Sun Devils new, young ball carriers might be dangerous weapons on the ground.

“I think the stat was, seven, maybe eight yards per carry for these guys,” senior quarterback Manny Wilkins said, referencing the team’s 7.4 yards per attempt rushing Saturday. “That’s impressive as heck. I don’t care who you play against, it is hard to average that many. And we ran the ball 36 times. They did their job and they did it well.”

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