Ralston looks to restore fullback legacy at ASU

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Nick Ralston runs during ASU's 2015 spring game (Photo: ASU Athletics) Nick Ralston runs during ASU's 2015 spring game (Photo: ASU Athletics)
Nick Ralston runs during ASU's 2015 spring game (Photo: ASU Athletics) Nick Ralston runs during ASU's 2015 spring game (Photo: ASU Athletics)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - For a number of years from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, Arizona State was "Fullback U". From the likes of Jeff Paulk to Terrelle Smith to Mike Karney, the Sun Devils consistently produced an outstanding big back that could plow holes open or convert a third and short.

As the sport evolved towards the pass-happy, read-option schemes that are so prevalent today, the position began to vanish. Nowadays, when teams line up in a short-yardage or goal line situation, three and four-wide receiver formations are common.

Likewise, ASU's current spread offensive system under coordinator Mike Norvell has been light on fullback usage. The team has used versatile tight ends, or 3-backs in the team's nomenclature, to fill certain fullback duties, and defensive linemen has seen time as a lead blocker in goal line sets.

Unfortunately, the Sun Devils have had their share of struggles in those critical situations in recent years. Any ASU fan will quickly point to the failings at the goal line in last year's loss to Arizona as a painful example.

Those times may be changing with the arrival of freshman Nick Ralston to Tempe.

Ralston was a standout running back for Argyle High School in Argyle, Tex., being named the Texas 4A Player of the Year as a senior. During his final three seasons, he ran for more than 6,000 yards and 94 touchdowns, yet the Sun Devil coaching staff envisioned him playing on defense at the collegiate level. During his National Signing Day press conference, head coach Todd Graham said that Ralston would line up at Sam linebacker, while acknowledging his versatility.

"He's one of those guys that people come in and will look and see, where is this guy going to play?" said Graham. "This guy will play. This guy is going to be a great player for us."

Graduating high school early, Ralston was able to enroll at ASU this past January to get a head start on college life and college football. As the start of spring football neared, the coaching staff broke the unexpected—but welcome—news that he was going back to offense.

"I didn't even know," said Ralston of the position switch. "We were going through spring training, and a week before spring break they told me 'We're going to move you to running back.' That's what I played my whole high school career. I think it's my more natural position."

That began a crash course in learning the offensive scheme.

"Coming in, learning the offense was the hardest part," Ralston admits. "I've learned pretty much everything, but I still don't have everything down. The other guys are teaching me, Coach Bo (Graham) is teaching me, and pushing me to be better. I'm so glad to be a Sun Devil."

Ralston joined the returning stable of backs consisting of Kalen Ballage, Demario Richard, Jacom Brimhall, and De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes. Although none of those four have more than a season of experience at the NCAA level, they have helped Ralston adjust quickly to the offense.

"KB and D-Rich, they have experience under their belt," said Ralston. "Learning from them every day, it's really helped me a lot with all the plays. Brimhall, any time I have a question, he'll answer it for me. They've all supported me, and we support each other. It's a family."

While many freshmen get caught in the whirlwind of adjusting to a whole new life in college, Ralston feels that the frenzy surrounding high school football in Texas has helped him with the process.

"I think the intensity down there in Texas, everything is intense when it comes to high school football," he said. "I definitely helped me a lot."

During spring practices, the 6-foot, 231-pound Ralston brought a new physicality to the Sun Devil backfield. Whether as a runner or a lead blocker, Ralston provided intriguing flashbacks to the days of Paulk and Karney. In doing so, he gives the offense hope of improving their redzone offense, which while ranking 12th nationally last year in redzone scoring percentage, ranked just 62nd in redzone touchdown percentage.

The ASU offense is not lacking in dynamic game breakers, but a dose of smashmouth will be a welcome weapon as they look to improve upon the latter stat.

"I'm kind of old style," Ralston said. "I can block pretty well, and I can run downhill pretty well."

Although he wouldn't rule out a flip back to linebacker, Ralston thinks his home is in the offensive backfield.

"I know that the coaches are going to put me in a position to maximize my potential," he said. "I think running back, fullback would be the place."

Beyond plowing open holes through a defense or gaining a tough yard or two, Ralston is also busy hitting the books hard. He's enrolled in ASU's Barrett Honors College, and he's finding a balance between both halves of the term "student-athlete".

"I'm taking 16 hours right now, and I'm in Barrett, so some of those classes are difficult," said Ralston. "Football provides us with such amazing resources. It's just managing your time, doing your work, and sticking to it. I'm just lucky to have all the support from everybody."

That commitment to being a well-rounded part of the program has made him a perfect fit as a Sun Devil.

"He is an unbelievable in every area of this guy's life. He's a winner," Graham said. "Character, smart, disciplined, tough, he exemplifies that."

Whether Ralston will be the first of a new generation of fullbacks remains to be seen. Right now, his goals are just finding a way to contribute to this 2015 team.

"Establishing a position and make plays," Ralston said. "Whatever Coach Graham and Coach Norvell come up with, I'm sure that they'll find some way of putting in a fullback. We'll see."