‘There ain’t no soft-baked cookies’: Arizona State taps transfer portal with running backs primed to reverse backslide

The Arizona State running back unit is deep after the program turned to the transfer portal for help. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Raleek Brown stretches out for a pass as DeCarlos Brooks watches. The running back transferred from USC. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – “Skattebo, Skatte-can, Skatte-touchdown!”

Those were the words of Fox Sports college football play-by-play announcer Tim Brando when Arizona State running back Cam Skattebo broke through two missed tackles to scamper in for a 52-yard touchdown against USC last season.

That was a breakout moment for Skattebo, who finished the season as the team’s leading rusher with 783 rushing yards and the third-most receiving yards (286). In a rebuilding 3-9 season, the performances from the ASU running back room was a silver lining amid the struggles.

ASU added Skattebo from Sacramento State in the transfer portal last year, but another addition from that transfer class who flew under the radar was running back DeCarlos Brooks from California. Brooks finished second on the team in rushing yards with 259 and was a solid backup for Skattebo. Both return for their senior seasons and can assist some of the newcomers.

Kyson Brown runs through a drill during a recent practice. The Sun Devils hope to bounce back after a 3-9 season. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

Kyson Brown runs through a drill during a recent practice. The Sun Devils hope to bounce back after a 3-9 season. (Photo by Ethan Briggs/Cronkite News)

“I would definitely say just to be a veteran guy and just help people when I can,” said Brooks, an Arizona native who was first-team all-state at Chandler High School. “Being the oldest in the (running back) room definitely makes me (have) a leadership role. I just tell the young guys what we got to do and stuff like that. They also get me better as well, so we just kind of feed off each other and help each other out.”

The Sun Devils have 23 incoming transfers, which is tied for the fourth-most in college football, according to 247Sports. This may sound like a lot, but it is actually less than last season when ASU had the second-most incoming transfers with 31 newcomers. As coach Kenny Dillingham enters his second season at the helm in Tempe, he believes the transfer portal is one of the fastest ways to rebuild a program, which is certainly something he has utilized.

One of the more highly touted incoming transfers is sophomore running back Raleek Brown, who was a four-star recruit and the third-best running back in the class of 2022 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. Brown stayed close to home and committed to USC, so he saw what ASU does with its running backs as Skattebo wreaked havoc against the Trojans.

Brown only played two games for USC as a redshirt last year despite playing every game his freshman season. The former Trojans player also never received double-digit carries in a game and part of the reason why is because USC listed him as a wide receiver, so Brown wanted to go to a place that would utilize him better.

“Yeah, it fits me more being strictly a running back,” Brown said. “I’ve been playing running back my whole life. I could play receiver, but I just never played it like my primary position. My primary position is running back, so I feel more comfortable.”

Brown is only listed at 5-feet-8 and 185 pounds, so his skillset is being a shifty running back with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. This compliments both Skattebo and Brooks well as both of those running backs are at least 30 pounds heavier, so they are more physical when running in between the tackles.

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This thunder and lightning combination provides the ASU offense a different look that defenses need to prepare for. Brown is adding more pounds so he can become a jack-of-all-trades with the physicality and the agility, which is certainly something that Dillingham notices.

“In the words of a good buddy of mine, ‘There ain’t no soft-baked cookies,’” Dillingham said. “We’re going to run hard. We’re going to be a team that runs the ball in between the tackles. People need to understand that Raleek is 190 pounds. Raleek is not a 170-175 pound slot receiver right now. He’s a 190-pound (running) back.”

There is only so much to gauge from spring football, but it provides a glimpse into what the ASU football team is looking like in the early stages of the offseason. The program is looking to take a step of progress after two consecutive 3-9 seasons, but Dillingham was only here for the one last year and is looking to build off that.

His motto is “Activate the Valley” and the first step of doing that was retaining running backs coach Shaun Aguano – who was the head coach at Chandler High School for eight seasons – after he served as the ASU interim head football coach following the departure of Herm Edwards. Aguano has all of these running backs to work with, but the main takeaway coming out of spring ball is to make sure the players are healthy and take care of all the little things that turn a good team into a great team.

“The attention to detail (and) the professionalism,” Aguano said. “Do we finish plays? Do we finish plays physical? Are we doing the right thing? Are we inside out on pass protections? All the little fundamental things, that’s what spring ball is for. It’s less the schematics (and) more of the fundamentals that we’re trying to hone in on.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.

Ethan Briggs(he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Ethan Briggs expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Briggs has worked with Blaze Radio for three years.