Even with junior starter D.J. Foster and true freshman Demario Richard banged up a bit on the shelf and junior college signee De'Chavon Hayes not yet in Tempe, Arizona State had a great practice running the ball Thursday.
Sun Devil coach Todd Graham said the team averaged 11 yards per carry on inside direct runs during the session, and the defense only managed three tackles for loss, a record low.
Seniors Kyle Middlebrooks and Deantre Lewis each broke up multiple big runs according to coaches, and true freshman Kalen Ballage had another in a seemingly unbroken series of impressive practices.
"I think the exciting thing is with (offensive coordinator) coach (Mike) Norvell in our offense, we have an opportunity to get the best 11 on the field together and we're competing with the wideouts and 3-backs," said Bo Graham, ASU running backs coach. "If that's two running backs or three running backs, we'll have them out there. Right now we're trying to get them fluent in the playbook and once we get into a game week we can start to really figure out how to use all of them specifically against an opponent."
Todd Graham has consistently maintained his offense is a power run style that ideally wants to use that to set up play action opportunities. He's also said it would probably take a few years to have the strength and conditioning to do it effectively.
Now, they're getting closer if not already there, he believes.
"The thing we're not going to do, we're not going to trick people to score," Todd Graham said. "That's what we did last year. You can't do that. Every champion has to line up and run the ball with great efficiency. That showed today."
A veteran offensive line includes seniors Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka and junior Vi Teofilo, all of whom pre-date Graham. Then there's impact transfer Christian Westerman, the most powerful of the bunch, evident even when he sat out last season as a practice player. Junior center Nick Kelly has added about as much size as anyone in the last year.
"This team is a better team because we're in year three," Todd Graham said. "They run the ball better, they do every little thing better, they're fundamentally better. Obviously the biggest thing lacking is the experience on defense and that's our job as coaches to work them. They're going to play hard."
Ballage and Richard are on a track to earn playing time this season. Ballage, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is a hulking physical specimen for a freshman running back, but is also fast for his size, and showing natural potential at the position.
"He runs great routes, what we're trying to get him to do now is just catch the ball, fundamentally," Bo Graham said. "But backfield, as far as vision, explosive ability, he's got all of that. He's natural. For a big guy he's just as shifty as a small guy. With his size he's got extraordinary size and speed."
While most of Ballage's reps are likely to come in the backfield, Richard has spent time in wide receiver meetings because he's a strong candidate to play in the tight slot role Foster excelled in the last two seasons when the Sun Devils are in two-backs with one looking more like a receiver formationally. But that doesn't mean he isn't a true running back. His coaches have been impressed how he's hit the hole with speed and power on inside runs.
"He's just extremely natural," Bo Graham said. "He just trusts the tracks and the things I'm teaching him. It's very exciting to see where he's at right now. I think from a physical standpoint, once he picks up protections and kind of knows where he's going from a protections standpoint, he's physically ready. He can get on the perimeter, he can run routes. He's very versatile. I think he's probably the closest version to No. 8 (Foster) in terms of his versatility."
Ballage said knowing everything at the rapid clip ASU practices and will play at is the biggest challenge, but he likes his progress to this point.
"The playbook is pretty big and everything," Ballage said. "I've got most of the playbook down. I think the biggest thing is, when there's 65,000 people screaming and you have to get that same play and we're no huddle, we're hurry up on the line and you have to get a play, that's going to be pretty hectic. That's going to be challenging for me.
"College is really about a lot of the little things. Of course I got to this level so know how to play football, but do I really know how to play football? It really goes into detail in everything you do."
Richard, who won't turn 18 until December and yet still is physically quite along at a well constructed 5-foot-9, 210 pounds, said he's reminding himself it's perfectly fine to ease into things and have his on field opportunity gradually expand.
"I'm not trying to be a star or something like that, I'm just trying to help the team," Richard said. "If that's playing slot, I'll play slot. If that's running back at the time, that's my role. I'm trying to come in here and play but I'm not trying to come in here and act like I'm the man when I know I'm not. I'm just trying to play my role until it's my time to step up and be the man."