Tuesday Morning Sun Devil: Returning running backs, national recruiting position ASU for success

ASU running back Chip Trayanum burst onto the scene in 2020 with a 25-yard touchdown against USC. (Photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics)

TEMPE – Rachaad White and Chip Trayanum led a dynamic Arizona State backfield in 2020. The smooth-accelerating junior college transfer and formidable freshman were big reasons the Sun Devils averaged more yards per game than any offense in the Pac-12.

So what’s the next step for these two talented backs in 2021? Learning to be a professional.

What does that mean?

“Understanding and paying attention to the details,” running backs coach Shaun Agauno said. “Getting better at reading second-level and the third-level defenders. Just the development of them as a running back.

“I thought they did a great job (last year) hitting the holes and finding their ways through the tackles. But now (it’s) understanding all the blocking schemes and then understanding how people are playing them at the second and third levels, especially at the safety level, so they can plan out their escape when they do break it.”

White and Trayanum both broke long runs in 2020. Understanding how defenses will attempt to stop them in 2021 should bode well for their ability to build on their promising debuts, add to their arsenal as rushers and continue to break away from would-be tacklers.

Joining them in the backfield will be Daniyel Ngata, a second-year freshman who came on strong during the second half of the Sun Devils’ abbreviated season.

Ngata, a former four-star recruit from Folsom High School in California, enrolled early in 2020 but was hampered by a hamstring injury. This affected his decisiveness when hitting holes in the line, Aguano said, and limited the explosiveness he was known for as a high school player.

“I saw in high school his ability to break away from defenders and play with confidence. I think this spring, after five practices, we see the old Daniyel back,” Aguano said. “He’s confident, he’s smiling, he’s having fun out there. And it’s a great complement for the other two. They’re helping him out too, and so those three are going to be a heck of a weapon for us in the backfield.”

Offensive coordinator Zak Hill mentioned previously that Trayanum and White had grown into respected leaders among their teammates for their preparation and work ethic. Aguano said the two runners’ attention to detail sets them apart.

“I think Chip and Rachaad do a great job in their details, and now we have to take it to a next level,” Aguano said. “How do I go about seeing more than just the box? How do I go about and see the outer skirts of the defense and understand what they’re trying to do to (us)? And so, it’s more of an in-classroom detail and learning more about the defense and how to attack it than it was last year.

“Last year was an attack it (mentality), and this is the way we’re going to do it and learn the offense. Now, it’s more understanding and the whys of everything that we do.”

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With Trayanum and White fine-tuning their understanding of defensive alignment, Ngata rediscovering his high school form and dynamic talents like D.J. Taylor working into the mix, ASU’s running back room should have plenty of options to mix and match during what is expected to be a full 12-game season in 2021.

The room also has its fair share of camaraderie, especially between White and junior running back Jackson He. He, who caused a sensation when he became the first Chinese-born player to score a touchdown in an FBS game against Arizona, became fast friends with White.

“They’re very close. They ride together to practice. I don’t know how much I should say, but Rachaad’s helping Jackson out in the woman category a little bit, giving him a little help there,” Aguano said. “And so it’s really funny watching them. But they get along real well. Jackson communicates with the group real well, and he’s a well-liked individual in our room.”

White and He spend so much time together that ASU’s staff has likened them to Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan from the “Rush Hour” film trilogy.

“Jackson, that’s my guy,” White said. “I mean, all of (the running backs are) my guys and we all hang out outside of here. We all just have a great relationship. Me and Jackson though, we kind of hang out. It’s a poster that the staff has made, they call me Chris Tucker and Jackson like Jackie Chan, because we be with each other so much, they trying to make it seem like if it’s Rush Hour or something. And that was funny to see.”

With continued success in the backfield in 2021, Rush Hour may take on a meaning beyond the movie franchise for the Sun Devils.

New Florida pipeline

One player defensive and recruiting coordinator Antonio Pierce singled out after a recent spring practice was first-year freshman Eric Gentry. A 6-foot-6, 220-pound linebacker from Neumann Goretti High School in Philadelphia, Gentry looks the part as a physical specimen and is already running with the second team in practice. He is one of the first players to catch your eye when you watch the Sun Devils on the Kajikawa practice fields.

Players like Gentry are the manifestation of ASU’s growth as a national recruiting power. In addition to Gentry, the Sun Devils signed players from Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Washington. But one state in particular, Florida, brought ASU Tommi Hill, a four-star athlete from Orlando who enrolled early and is challenging for a spot at cornerback in the two-deep.

This newfound depth has Pierce confident that players on his second team could start if the need arose.

“”Our twos (second-teamers) are pretty good. Our twos could be starters and we’ll be comfortable with that. Now would it be what we want, and fine-tuned across the board? No. But we’re really comfortable with our twos,” Pierce said. “And I’ll just use the linebackers for example. I think (second-year freshman) Caleb McCullough is close to being a starter. Eric Gentry is a true freshman coming in, and he’s very impressive.

ASU defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins has been instrumental in the program’s ascension as a national recruiting power. (Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)

“Tommi Hill, you look at (defensive backs) Cameron Phillips, Kejuan Markham, you name a bunch of guys in our second group, and you say, ‘Wow. If that was the starter, I’m OK.’ And those guys understand it, and the guys in front of them understand it because I’m telling them each and every day. And we’re also telling our freshmen that, because that’s what we’re telling the recruits when they come in here, that they’re going to be given an opportunity to compete. And that’s how we built this culture here over the last four years.”

And after landing Hill in 2021, the Sunshine State has already borne impressive fruit for the Sun Devils in the 2022 class, with four-safety Alfonzo Allen committing to ASU on March 13. Allen joined his teammate, four-star 2022 safety Jaylin Marshall, as the second player from Hallandale High School in Hallandale Beach to commit to the Sun Devils in the span of a month.

Landing two four-star teammates from across the country is not something ASU has done habitually in the past. With prospects like four-star quarterback AJ Duffy (IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.) and four-star defensive tackle Anthony Lucas (Chaparral in Scottsdale) seriously considering the Sun Devils, the building blocks are there for a transformative national recruiting class that could match or exceed ASU’s impressive talent haul in 2020.

This will continue to upgrade the talent level at all positions, something Pierce has already noticed on the practice field this spring with players like Gentry and Hill.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Pierce said. “I’ll be honest, when we look at our offensive line and I’ll flip on the other side of the ball, and seeing those freshmen come in and the mass and the size and the length and the athleticism that they now have, that we have with our second and third units, it’s impressive. Since we’ve been here and since I’ve been here with coach Edwards, I’ve never seen our third offensive line group look like that. I’ve never seen those kind of body types walk around the building. And we’ve got close to 17 offensive linemen I believe here in the spring on scholarship, and it’s amazing to see the length and the size and the wingspan of these guys.

ASU defensive end and LSU transfer Travez Moore should play a key role as a pass-rush specialist in 2021. (Photo courtesy Sun Devil Athletics)

“And then when you flip on the defensive side of the ball, look at the guys we brought in. I mean, you just got to see Eric Gentry in person. And yeah, he’s skinny, but he is long, and he’s athletic and he’s fast. And then Tommi Hill and (cornerback) RJ (Regan) have done a great job of competing. Tommi’s close to 200 pounds, probably our biggest DB, playing corner, and one of our fastest guys. So a very impressive group of guys that were brought in last year in that ’21 class for us. And that’s just gonna keep building on what we’ve been doing over the last year.”

ASU has played freshmen frequently, something Pierce notes the program sells to recruits and then backs up on the field. This promotes an atmosphere of competition that Pierce and Edwards design to raise the level of intensity and execution of each unit.

Senior safety Evan Fields, a starter and anchor of the Sun Devils’ defense with NFL draft aspirations, said he appreciates the way the talented younger players put pressure on ASU’s veterans to perform their best.

“I feel like our coaches have done a great job of recruiting and bringing in talent, and I feel like it helps us a lot,” Fields said. “It just keeps everybody on your toes. If you’re not doing your job, then there’s somebody else that can come up and do it. So I just feel like it just makes the room better when you have competition like that, and it’s making the older player work hard and giving the younger player a good example to look to. And if somebody younger (is) balling, then next man up.”

If players like Allen and Marshall continue to sign with ASU, the Sun Devils will build even more depth at all positions and continue to challenge even NFL-bound talents like Fields for starting spots. The Sun Devils will create the type of intrasquad competition that creates a roster deep and battle-tested enough to go toe-to-toe with the Pac-12’s best.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christian Babcock expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a related area in sustainability. Babcock, who has interned with The Arizona Republic, is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.