Saturday, August 16, 2008

ASU Preseason Outlook II: Running Backs

In 2006, a JuCo transfer that carried little hype decided to take over the ASU running game. His coming out party was in a loss, but while watching that game, we all knew what was to come.

Finally, ASU had its top flight back. And it was too bad that Dirk Koetter still liked to pass the ball too much.

On that ill-fated Saturday in Berkeley, Ryan Torain captured our attention and still hasn’t let it go. Most of us took it as a shot to the gut when we saw him go down with that elbow injury. Torain is the kind of kid that you want to see succeed.

Because of that, it’s going to be hard to see the maroon and gold run out of the tunnel on August 30 and not see Ryan with them. That doesn’t mean the Sun Devils’ run game is decimated though; in fact, it may have never looked better.

It all starts with the guy that might be the most explosive and enigmatic back in the Pac-10. When Keegan Herring ran for 134 yards against Temple in his first game back in 2005, we knew this kid was something special. The senior back has got explosive speed, an innate ability to find his way around corners and the penchant to make anything happen on any play.

Herring seems to be good for at least one game breaking run every week, and his timing couldn’t be more impeccable. Herring’s main downfall is that he still just dances too much. While he can break a long run at any time, he can also find himself deep in the backfield looking for daylight at least once a week as well. It’s definitely a frustrating thing to watch him reverse direction three or four times, especially on the occasions when he isn’t able make anything of it.

Running right alongside the senior will be junior Dimitri Nance. Combined with Herring, the two come into 2008 as statistically the top tandem in the Pac-10; they’ve totaled more rushing yards and touchdowns than any other pair on the West Coast.

Nance came through in a major way last season when Torain went down with the Lisfranc injury. As cliché as it is, Nance is the thunder to Herring’s lightning; he’s a tough-nosed, between the tackles back that fights for yards and, even at only 5’10”, can push the pile with his 220 pound frame. Nance needs to work on blitz pickups in the worse way though; he’s fairly excitable on passing downs and, with the offensive line still porous, has to work on protecting Rudy Carpenter a bit more.

Speaking of pass blocking, that’s where Shaun DeWitty comes in. If I may quote from my 2007 RB preview:

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.

Not much has changed other than the fact that he’s now listed at 227. He’s been hampered by injuries but has been seeing more reps in practice lately. He still pass blocks like none other but I still don’t foresee a major role for him in this offense.

Jarrell Woods finally saw some game action during the garbage time of last year’s Holiday Bowl. He’s still definitely a work in progress as a redshirt junior but has finally recovered from the injury that nagged him throughout 2007.

There are two newcomers to keep an eye on in 2008: one that we’ve been anticipating for a year now and the other emerging as the nicest surprise of fall camp.

We all have studied, picked apart and drooled over Ryan Bass. The kid is just a downright stud. He’s got size (5’10” and 200 but looks bigger), speed (as fast as Herring, if not faster) and a nose for the end zone (47 touchdowns in 2007). He’s been impressing both Erickson and RB coach Jamie Christian throughout camp and will definitely see playing time as a true frosh. Bass is also a threat out of the backfield in the passing game, he’s been catching many a pass in the flat throughout fall camp and been able to break them for big gainers.

Then there’s walk-on running back James Morrison. He’s not in the media guide, he’s not on the fall depth chart (yet) and I’m pretty sure the only people that had heard of him before last week were his teammates at St. Mary’s (and maybe his parents). But he’s broken some big runs in practice with Herring and DeWitty both out with injury and has been earning more of a look recently. If nothing else, Morrison will catch on with the scout team.

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