(Photo: Tyler Strachan/WCSN)
While familiar faces return to make an impact on the Arizona State roster, some of those faces may be seen in different places. For example, redshirt sophomore Marcus Ball, who was recruited as a safety, has spent the majority of the time at spur linebacker this spring, senior quarterback Mike Bercovici will get a full season as the starter and most notably, senior D.J. Foster will move from tailback to primarily lining up as a receiver.
Foster’s versatile skill-set was on display last season, and his numbers not only talked for his play, but they screamed off the stat sheet. Foster led the team in rushing with 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns and was second on the team in receiving with 688 yards and three touchdowns.
The hole will need to be filled out wide as Jaelen Strong declared for the NFL draft and junior wide receiver Cameron Smith will sit out next season due to a knee injury, but who will take Foster’s place in the backfield, and how will they match his production?
Well the two-headed sophomore monster of Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage feel they have what it takes to take this team to the next step, and their confidence is spoken through their goals.
Richard had an impressive freshman campaign backing up Foster, tallying 478 yards on 84 carries and reaching the end zone on four occasions.
“He’s very talented, very talented,” Ballage said of Richard. “Very powerful, can catch the football out of the backfield. He’s smart. Anything that you really look for in a running back, Demario has it.”
Richard also tallied up 156 receiving yards and four touchdowns through the air, and he feels more than ready to carry the load on the ground.
“I was prepared last year,” Richard said. “My coach always tells me to stay prepared. Stay ready, so I don’t have to get ready. Now I’ve been with Berc (Mike Bercovici) a lot lately, so he’s always in my head about everything, and I’m just trying to be a smarter player, so I’m always critical of myself too.”
Ballage, on the other hand, is going to get a lot more time on the field than he saw in his freshman season. His 126 rushing yards and three touchdowns don’t jump off the paper quite like Richard’s numbers do, but his running mate recognizes what he brings to the table.
“He brings a lot to the table, and that just pushed me to get better every day too,” Richard said.
This committee of tailbacks no question has big shoes to fill, and if they want to fulfill their potential, each of them has to do their part in improving this spring.
“Just getting everybody in this running back group up to par,” Richard said. “Getting Gump (De’Chavon Hayes) onto par with how this offense is going to go, the speed of the offense, getting him right and just staying healthy.”
While Foster has the most experience in the backfield, his teammates recognize that they will have to learn for themselves.
“He’s learning basically a completely new playbook so I don’t really bug him or bother him for anything,” Ballage said. “I’m back here learning. He’s out there learning, but he’s a great teammate.”
Despite their distinct differences in experience and physique (Ballage stands 6-foot-3, Richard just 5-foot-10), Ballage sees no drop-off or change of production when one of them is swapped out for the other.
“If you’d ask me, it’s just like we keep coming,” Ballage said. “I mean one of us gets tired, and we go out, and you’re taking pretty much the same back out, and putting the same back in, and he’s going and he’s going and he’s going, and you flip us out, and it just doesn’t stop. So we have an opportunity to tire out a lot of defenses.”
Regardless of who does what on a game-to-game basis, Richard and Ballage have the time and ability to do big things on the ground this season, and there is no doubt they have big things on their mind on what they want to achieve.
“To be the best running back group in the country,” Ballage said. “That’s what we want to do. Pac-12, SEC, doesn’t matter, we want to be the best.”