Ever since Ryan Torain plowed his way to 1,229 yards in 2006, the Arizona State running game has lacked the effectiveness that is necessary for an offense to achieve it's peak effectiveness.
Since that 2006 season, no Sun Devil runner has eclipsed 1,000 yards, and the team has not surpassed a four yard per carry average, with the production bottoming out in 2008 when they posted a horrendous 2.9 mark.
However, 2011 brings with it the kind of talent in the backfield that ASU has not had since the J.R. Redmond and Terry Battle days. In fact, the three-headed attack is arguably the strongest playmakming unit on the team. With offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense putting a premium on spreading the field, the running backs play a major role in both the running and passing games.
The leader of the pack is junior Cameron Marshall, who led the team with 787 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns last season. Blessed with a powerful 5'11", 215 pound frame, Marshall proved to be a powerful runner in 2010, consistently keeping drives alive with hard inside runs. However, he also proved to possess breakaway speed, evidenced by his runs of 75 and 71 yards over the last two seasons. Marshall was also a factor in the passing game, adding 21 receptions for another 227 yards. His play earned him a spot on the Doak Walker Award watch list, given annually to the nation's top running back. If not for the wealth of talent in ASU's backfield, Marshall could be a serious contender to lead the conference in rushing, as he has all the tools to be a traditional workhorse back.
As productive as Marshall is, there is arguably no more explosive playmaker on the team than sophomore running back Deantre Lewis. He burst onto the scene in his very first collegiate game last season, scoring three touchdowns against Portland State and topped 100 yards receiving on only three receptions. He then posted consecutive 100-yard rushing games against Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State and at that point led the conference in yards-per-carry. However, he suffered a leg injury that hampered him the remainder of the year. Despite that injury, he still made 10 plays of over 20 yards from scrimmage, including three of over 50 yards.
Over the off-season, he was an innocent bystander in a shooting and was shot in the buttocks by a stray bullet, and his recovery has been slow. After some fears that he'd miss significant time or even redshirt this season, he's improved and is now expected to contribute this season, although he will not play in the opener against UC Davis and his return date is still unknown.
Rounding out the talented trio is another sophomore, Kyle Middlebrooks. What he lacks in size (5'8", 175 pounds) he makes up for in speed, as he's touted as ASU's fastest player. He saw some time during Lewis' injury, amassing a modest 188 yards from scrimmage, but look for that total to multiply this season. He's a shifty scatback type that can create nightmares for defenses in the open space that Mazzone's system creates. Middlebrooks is also a dangerous kickoff returner, and fell a single yard shy of a touchdown on a return at the end of first half at Wisconsin.
Behind them is junior James Morrison, a tough, grinding runner in the mold of former Sun Devil Dimitri Nance. His carries have been scarce during his tenure in Tempe and with the talent level in front of him, that is unlikely to change barring injury.
One wild card in the backfield is sophomore Jamal Miles. He began last season at running back and scored three touchdowns (one rushing and two receiving) in the season's first two games before being moved to wide receiver. On the year, he caught 25 passes for 205 yards and ran for another 63 yards. However, he made his biggest mark on special teams, as the top punt returner with 29 returns for a healthy 8.6 yard average. He only returned three kickoffs, but happened to take one of those back 99 yards for a touchdown against UCLA. His dynamic versatility landed him on the Paul Hornung Award watch list, which is given for the most versatile player in the nation. Look for Miles to make in impact all over the field, including at running back, especially if Lewis misses more time than expected.
With the entire offensive line returning and quarterback Brock Osweiler in his first full season as the starter, the running back unit should be counted on to lead the offensive attack in the season's early weeks. Given their talent, they could very well run this team to a Pac-12 South championship.