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November 2, 2010

Running-back to the future

On a day when millions went to the polls to cast ballots, Arizona State running back coach Bryce Erickson stood on the practice field as the sun set, reflecting on the elections he makes each Saturday.

He has four candidates to choose from, each with a wide of array of skills and increasingly impressive resumes. Each with the potential to make jaw-dropping plays.

Decisions, decisions.

Erickson is charged with rotating playing time among the members of ASU's young-but-talented backfield. Sophomores Cameron Marshall and Jamal Miles and freshmen Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks have each made solid contributions this season to an ASU offense that has taken frog leaps in production over the last two seasons.

So how does Erickson decide how to punch his ballot and implement the right players at the right time? You could call it a fluid process.

"My philosophy is, watching the game, who has a good feeling for it and who is running the best, obviously I'm going to keep that guy in there," Erickson said. "As you've watched us this season, one week it might be one running back the next week it might be the other running back."

Or some weeks it can be all of them.

Against Washington State, all four players scored a touchdown, with Marshall and Miles crossing the goal line twice. Whether it was a route in the flat that turned into a score or a nifty, multiple-cut run up the middle like the one Middlebrooks scored on in the fourth quarter, the young Sun Devils found a way to make a big impact in the win against the Cougars, a storyline that has played itself out often this season.

Their contributions have been magnified by the diversity with which they make plays. ASU's new quick-hit offense has put a premium on the pass, but that doesn't mean the wide receivers are the only ones reaping the benefits. The four young guns have combined to catch 53 passes, six of which have gone for touchdowns.

"We're going to recruit running backs who are not only fast and can make big plays, but they also have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield," Erickson said. "They all have naturally great hands, so that helps. I think (Middlebrooks) playing a little bit of receiver helped him, too."

Middlebrooks was slotted at receiver coming out of fall camp, but an eventual overcrowding at the position had the freshman moving to running back, the spot he played at Fountain Valley (Calif.) High.

"I feel real comfortable back there," Middlebrooks said of his sport at running back. "That's where I played in high school, so it just came back to me naturally. It was just about getting back into the rhythm of it."

Middlebrooks, who may be the fastest player on the ASU roster, caught four passes for 49 yards on Saturday and scored his first career touchdown on a 10-yard run in the fourth quarter that had a number of Cougar defenders faked out of their shoes.

"He's done a great job since transitioning over from receiver," Erickson said. "He adapted really well."

Junior wide receiver Gerell Robinson played in limited action as a true freshman and is familiar with the growing pains that accompany being asked to make an impact at the next level right away, which is why he comes away impressed with the way the young backs have taken to their new roles with aplomb.

"Me being a freshman playing with everybody else, it was more of a learning experience," Robinson said. "Fortunately for them, they've been able to get in here and make some strides and make people open their eyes and get some notoriety for themselves, so it's good."

Party like it's 1999

The ASU coaching staff has placed signs this week that read "1999" on the doors of the football meeting rooms and offices. That, of course, is the year the Sun Devils last defeated USC, the team ASU faces in Los Angeles Saturday.

Though the signs add a little extra motivation, Robinson said the team isn't thinking about the streak.

"We're not so much worried about the past. We're worried about the present," the receiver said. "We can't do anything about the past 10 or 11 years. We can only affect what we do this year. If we take it one step at a time -- play by play, inch by inch -- we'll come away with the victory."

As an approach to get the team ready for some of the atmosphere in and around Memorial Coliseum, the USC fight song was blared across the outdoor practice facility during Tuesday's practice.

"I wanted to try to memorize the words," ASU coach Dennis Erickson mused. "We just want (our players) to get used to it."

Injury report

Sophomore defensive tackle Corey Adams (neck stinger) and junior linebacker Oliver Aaron (back spasm) both were held out of Tuesday's practice, but Erickson said both will play against USC.


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