Friday, July 27, 2007

Football Position Preview Part II: Running Backs

by Justin Karp, Host of Sun Devil Power Hour on The Fan AM 1060.

Without any shadow of a doubt, the strongest unit for the Sun Devils coming into the 2007 season is the backfield.

Over the past five seasons, the running back position had been systematically devalued as former head coach Dirk Koetter heavily leaned on the passing game. As a result, before last season, ASU lacked a marquee, standout running back for several seasons.

All of that changed in 2006 with the emergence of Ryan Torain, a JuCo transfer from Butler Community College in Kansas. Thanks to several outstanding performances throughout the season and struggles within the Sun Devils passing game, Torain became ASU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2001 and had the most rushing yards in a single season for ASU since 1975.

In this edition of my 2007 season preview, I’ll spotlight the four most notable ASU running backs.

You’ve already read all of the accomplishments Ryan Torain achieved in 2006, and the same is expected of the 6’1” senior in 2007. The praise for Ryan is far ranging; he’s a 2nd-team all Pac-10 selection, a Sporting News 2nd-team all-Pac-10 selection, Phil Steele’s 1st-team Pac-10 running back and has been rated as the 2nd best senior RB by ESPN football analyst Mel Kiper.

ASU coaches and fans expect more of the same out of Torain this season. He’s a powerful, north/south runner with explosive speed. However, he’s got the skills to be shifty in and out of the backfield, as evidenced by his twisting-and-turning, season-long 64 yard run in the Hawaii Bowl. With an improved passing game, it will be difficult for Torain to equal his 1,229 rushing yards from last season.

Even with an inexperienced line in front of him, Torain can hit the smallest of holes and turn them into big gains. It’s interesting to note that in his 191-yard outburst against California, he was running behind several 2nd-string offensive linemen, including Paul Fanaika and Richard Tuitu’u.

Behind Torain is an almost equally talented back, Keegan Herring. Herring exploded onto the scene in 2005, a 5’10” junior who, in his debut against Temple, rushed for 134 yards, a record for any Sun Devil RB debut in school history. He only started two games that season but still broke Loren Wade’s 2003 record for most rushing yards by a freshman in a single season.

Despite losing what looked like was his starting job to Torain, Herring still rushed for 584 yards as a part of what many observers regarded as one of the best RB tandems in the league last season. He’ll see action in 2007 as a speedy complement to Torain’s bruising, power style.

Shaun DeWitty has struggled to find his place in the ASU offense over the last two seasons. He was a highly touted and fast member of the 2005 freshman class but didn’t see significant playing time that season, and least year he was eclipsed by the successes of Torain and Herring.

However, DeWitty has been called the best pass blocker of the entire running back corps, definitely aided by his 6’2”, 217-pound frame. Look for DeWitty, who rushed for just 101 yards last season in limited action, to see action in the backfield to make room for quarterback Rudy Carpenter to make plays in four-wide passing sets.

Fans and coaches alike are excited about what sophomore Dmitri Nance has to offer as well. He surprised many in last year’s season opener against Northern Arizona when in the fourth quarter, he ran for 61 yards and scored a touchdown. Nance’s role on this team will most likely be in short-yardage and goal line situations, as he’s quick on his feet and rarely taken down in the backfield.

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