The Pac-12 has been on the leading edge of using players on both offense and defense since then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh asked "Why the heck not?" and the 2015 season will be no exception. USC's Jackson is dynamic at both cornerback and receiver, not to mention as a return guy, and a handful of teams across the conference are at least contemplating using their most athletic players on both sides of the ball.
Defensive players for UCLA have scored 15 touchdowns while playing on offense since Jim Mora took over in 2012. California might use Luke Rubenzer as a backup QB and safety, among other two-way guys. Washington safety Budda Baker could see action at running back or receiver. One of the great games during spring practices was speculating where the heck Oregon's Charles Nelson would play.
Yet Arizona State coach Todd Graham not only confirmed at Pac-12 media days that he's going to use true sophomore Kalen Ballage at both running back and outside linebacker and perhaps even in the return game on special teams, he sold it with gusto, insisting, "We're going to get our money's worth out of him."
"I think he's, obviously, a guy we're going to put the ball in his hand," Graham said. "We've had guys in the past that have been able to be a third-down pass-rusher and do those type of things. But we think he's one of the most dynamic players and versatile players in the country, so why not utilize that? I don't really care what anybody else is doing. We've got to do whatever we've got to do to win games, and Kalen's willing to do whatever we ask him to do."
Ballage, a yoked 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, probably can handle it. He proved a proficient power back last year, rushing for 126 yards and three scores on 42 carries, as well as a solid receiver, catching six passes for 64 yards and a score. He also had a 96-yard kick return in the Sun Bowl win over Duke.
This past spring, however, was when he made his alpha dog statement. At the time, Graham described him as, "absolutely off the chain this spring" and called him the Sun Devils' best pass-rusher.
"He was probably, I would say, the MVP of our spring training," Graham said. "He just had a tremendous [spring] game. Really just being a true freshman [last year]; he could just tell the difference. He figured out that he was a pretty difficult guy to tackle, and he dominated."
Ballage wasn't tabbed for defense until touted JC transfer Davon Durant was kicked off the team after an arrest for assaulting his girlfriend. Durant was expected to immediately jump into the Sun Devils critical "Devil 'backer" position, a slot for a pass-rush specialists that was a liability in 2014. Ballage is presently listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind junior Edmond Boateng and is among a boldfaced troika on the running back depth with Demario Richard and De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes.
The Sun Devils' strong depth at running back, which already allowed D.J. Foster to switch full-time to slot receiver, is also a reason that Ballage could become a third-down pass-rushing specialist. Still, Graham isn't ready to announce a concrete plan for how Ballage's focus will be divided between the units.
"I think we're going to evaluate that for probably the first six to eight days of fall camp and kind of see how that's going to go," Graham said. "Going in, I can tell you right now going in, we're kind of looking at it 50-50. Maybe one day offense, one day defense. Really just evaluate it, and then we'll assess it, and get it narrowed down pretty quickly what he's going to do. Whether that be full-time offense, third-down pass-rusher, or play both ways and try to get as many reps as we can out of him."
Fair to say that Graham, as he previously noted, has no plans to waste ASU's cost of attendance outlay for Ballage this fall.