Running back depth shows potential
A steady pigskin diet of Kyle Middlebrooks, Marcus Washington and R.J. Robinson probably isn't what running backs coach Bryce Erickson imagined would be on the fall camp menu, but he's comfortable the team's ground game wouldn't starve with just the trio.
Fortunately for Erickson and the Sun Devils, there will likely be a lot more on their plate.
Starting junior running back Cameron Marshall has missed much of camp for precautionary reasons with a mild hamstring strain and projected No. 2 back sophomore Deantre Lewis has yet to practice as he recovers from a gunshot wound that injured his hamstring.
More recently, junior backup James Morrison sprained a shoulder in Saturday's scrimmage, and it's left just sophomores Middlebrook and Robinson, a walk-on, and Washington, a redshirt freshman, getting all of the practice reps this week.
Even so, Erickson has liked what he's seen.
"I would have no problem giving the ball to Kyle 20 times a game," Erickson said. "One thing that is a little at his disadvantage that he works on everyday is pass protection. And that is a technique thing but he is a little undersized as well so we would like to get him in match ups. I do know that he will know who to block when he is called upon to do that. He is a great switch up. He has a lot more power than people think. He kind of gets lost back there. Before you know it you see No. 7 squirting out and running down the football field."
Middlebrooks and Washington are both very good receiving the ball out of the backfield on the swing passes that are prominent in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone architecture. But while Middlebrooks is smaller and more elusive, Washington has good size and can make his presence known physically.
"Marcus has probably improved more than all the running backs this year," Erickson said. "I think a light came on with him. The first [year and a half] he was thinking about too much, paralysis by analysis. Now that he is more comfortable with his technique and the plays he is more fluid and not thinking as much and I think that has helped him tremendously. He is a high runner and he has worked really hard on getting his pads down. And when he gets his pads down he is hard to tackle."
Robinson ended up the offensive standout of the Saturday scrimmage. As others fell by the wayside with injuries, the diminutive 5-foot-8, 172-pounder, broke off several big runs and had over 60 yards and a touchdown on eight carries.
I love him," Erickson said. "He reminds me of an old running back who played for my dad at Oregon State. by the name of Ken Simonton. He also was a walk on at the time, I want to say also (jersey) No. 35."
Quick to point out Morrison was having a strong camp when he went down and Marshall and Lewis are stars of the position group when healthy, Erickson is not only thrilled with the talent he has to work with, but also some new designed run plays that are in the playbook this year, especially a draw that has worked very effectively in camp.
"Oh I love that play," Erickson said. "We kind of got that one when we went to the coaches clinic in Houston. And I think it will probably be our third most utilized play. It is hard to stop, it is a numbers game. And depending on where that MIKE backer lines up kind of tells us whether we are going to run the draw or run through the middle. Those guys have done a great job running the flash fake and pass protection fake. And getting our shoulders square and getting ready for that ball. But it is going to be a huge play. That is a probably my favorite play."
Sophomore linebacker Anthony Jones left practice early with a minor left shoulder sprain. Junior defensive tackle Toa Tuitea suffered a lower leg contusion but is expected back in the next day or two, coach Dennis Erickson said.
Junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict has worked with defensive linemen on defeating the hands and arms of offensive linemen and running backs when used as a blitzer, something fans may see more of this season. Several defensive ends, including sophomore Davon Coleman and junior Gregory Smith worked on interception drills due to their anticipated use dropping into coverage on zone blitzes.