Last spring, Arizona State football coach Dirk Koetter had running backs coming out his ears. He took four underclassmen, all with previous experience as starters, to Camp Tontozona in 2004, with the only question being how to keep all four happy and sharp.
One year later, the questions are vastly different as spring practice comes to a close with a controlled scrimmage today. Who are these running backs? Are there enough of them around to get the Sun Devils through the 2005 season? Is the starter even on campus yet?
None of last year’s quartet will be on the field at Sun Devil Stadium today. Hakim Hill and Loren Wade are no longer at ASU and Randy Hill (knee) and Cornell Canidate (groin) are coming off major surgeries. Both vow a return in the fall, but right now their futures remain clouded at best.
"We’d love to think we’d have those guys for Tontozona, but it’s all just one big question mark, really,’’ Koetter said.
Sophomore Rudy Burgess was spectacular in two starts at running back — rushing for 308 yards and catching two touchdown passes out of the backfield in the Sun Bowl win over Purdue.
"Every time Rudy jumps in there, there is just no question about who our best tailback is by far,’’ Koetter said after Thursday’s practice.
But even after gaining 10 pounds in the spring, the 185-pound Burgess is too small for the constant pounding a Pac-10 running back takes. Koetter has worked him at receiver much of the spring to save wear and tear and that’s where he’ll play today.
And when it comes right down to it, Burgess isn’t too keen on being a tailback.
"I’ve been at receiver all spring and I feel really good out there,’’ he said. "I’d love to play that spot. If I have to (play tailback), I guess I can, but it’s not something I’m focusing on right now.’’
Beyond Burgess, things get really iffy. Sophomore Antone Saulsberry, a converted linebacker, saw time in the Sun Bowl but is unproven. Junior Jarrett Sayas, who sat out last season after transferring from New Mexico State, sprained his foot and likely won’t play today. Sophomore Preston Jones is also hobbled, and redshirt freshman Price Wilks, highly touted when he arrived as a recruit from Hacienda Heights, Calif., has had an unspectacular spring.
Then there are the wild cards. ASU signed two highly touted, speedy tailbacks this spring — Colorado’s Shaun Dewitty and Peoria High’s Keegan Herring. ASU has played incoming freshmen right away with good results — receiver Derek Hagan and tight end Zach Miller are two recent examples — and there are indications both players will at least get a shot at playing in the fall.
The health of Hill and Canidate will play a role in determining how much work Dewitty and/or Herring will see in August.
"We know they are skilled enough to play, but you never know how fast they’re going to learn (the offensive scheme),’’ Koetter said. "Every kid is so different. Some kids just have great football sense. Some kids are great athletes, but it takes them longer to learn.
"In recruiting, you don’t get to see the kid in a learning environment. You find out things the first time those guys get hit. When you get into two-a-days, and their bodies are hurting, how do they react to that? We just don’t know."
And tailback isn’t a position where you can learn on the job.
"A guy that isn’t ready will turn the ball over and get you beat,’’ Koetter said.