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Bevy of running backs gives Sun Devils options

Redshirt freshman running back James Morrison runs down the field during spring practice at the Bill Kajikawa practice fields on Wednesday.(Matt Pavelek | The State Press)

After two seasons as a graduate assistant, Bryce Erickson has moved up a rung on the coaching ladder.

The son of ASU football coach Dennis Erickson has been bumped up to an assistant position and will serve as running-backs coach this season.

He replaces Jamie Christian, who has moved over to coach the tight ends.

“So far it’s been a dream come true,” Bryce Erickson said. “I’ve always worked to try to get to the position I’m at right now. I have a great group of guys [and] I’ve been blessed to be given the opportunity.”

Erickson was the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at New Mexico Highlands before joining his father’s staff at ASU as a graduate assistant in 2006.

Now his role on the staff has greatly increased, and he will also become one of ASU’s primary recruiters starting this season.

“It just feels nice to have my own set of guys [again],” he said. “I missed that coming from New Mexico Highlands, where I coached the quarterbacks and receivers. Building that relationship with the guys, that’s been the biggest positive.”

The younger Erickson’s first line of business will be shoring up a Sun Devil rushing attack that ranked ninth in the Pac-10 (89.1 yards per game) last season.

But according to him, ASU has both talent and depth in the backfield this season.

“I feel like I’ve got the best group in America,” Erickson said. “All the running backs have an opportunity to get playing time.”

The Sun Devils lose Keegan Herring, who finished his career eighth on ASU’s all-time rushing list (2,635 yards) but was bothered by a hamstring injury all of last season.

ASU returns seniors Dimitri Nance and Shaun DeWitty, who each spent time in the starting lineup in 2008.

Nance finished the season as the Sun Devils’ leading rusher, tallying 410 yards and three touchdowns, and DeWitty ran for 270 yards while seeing a significant bump in playing time at the end of the season.

Nance practiced with the first team on Wednesday, and DeWitty ran with the second team.

Also returning in the backfield are sophomore Ryan Bass and senior Jarrell Woods.

Bass is likely the future at the position and should challenge for the starting job this season, while Woods has seen limited action throughout his career.

Erickson said that it’s currently a three-man race between Nance, DeWitty and Bass for the starting spot.

“My philosophy is that the best players are going to play, so in that regard it is an open competition,” Erickson said. “But with respect to Nance and DeWitty and Bass, those guys have experience [and] those guys are going to get the upper hand going into this thing. It’s their job to lose, and those three right now are really competing for the No. 1 job.”

The wild card at running back is redshirt freshman James Morrison, who had an outstanding fall camp in 2008 after walking onto the team.

Morrison redshirted last season and suffered a broken ankle, but he has since earned a scholarship and will be in the mix for increased repetitions.

“I’m kind of trying to ease [Morrison] into it, because his ankle is still a little tender right now,” Erickson said. “It’s more mental for him right now. Once he gets all his assignments and the technique, he’ll get better. The more I feel like he’s comfortable with the offense and physically he’s comfortable, then we’ll get him more reps and see what he can do.”

Erickson said that true freshmen Jamal Miles and Cameron Marshall could also come in and help right away in fall camp.

Senior wide receiver Chris McGaha was limited in practice Wednesday because of a toe injury that plagued him through all of 2008. McGaha worked out individually on the sidelines, but he did not participate in the team drills at the end of practice.

Dennis Erickson said that the Sun Devils will put the pads on for the first time this spring on Thursday, with their first scrimmage taking place on Saturday.

NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway attended practice Tuesday and Wednesday to watch his son, Jack, in action.

Jack Elway quarterbacked the scout team offense while redshirting last season and saw limited reps in practice Wednesday.

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