ASU’s shifty junior tailback and return man is happy to see how new Sun Devil coach Todd Graham’s schemes are fitting himself and the entire team. And Middlebrooks is sure his trademark speed will be utilized in 2012.
“The running backs are a big part of this offense,” Middlebrooks said. “We have different responsibilities from last year. We split out wide sometimes and we do a lot of running also. It’s a good combination of both.”
Middlebrooks has been a home run threat since joining the Sun Devils lineup in 2010. When the ball arrives in his hands, teammates know anything can happen. But he didn’t enjoy the breakout season he hoped for as a sophomore, gaining just 150 yards on 42 carries and catching 19 passes for 135 yards. He has much higher hopes this fall.
After just two weeks of spring practice, Graham has already noted Middlebrooks as a skill player who has stood out.
With last year’s top tailback, senior Cameron Marshall, out for the remainder of spring ball with an ankle injury, Middlebrooks has seen increased practice reps.
“No matter what, when somebody goes down, somebody else is going to have to pick it up,” Middlebrooks said. “That’s what us running backs are trying to do. It’s going to be important for all of us because you never know.”
Middlebrooks knows the extra carries at practice are an opportunity. With Marshall out, the Sun Devils are thin at running back this spring. But come fall, not only Will Marshall return but ASU will welcome JC transfer standout Marion Grice and prized recruit D.J. Foster to the backfield.
Sophomore Deantre Lewis is also expected to keep improving after missing all of last year following an injury sustained from a gunshot wound while visiting family in Southern California .
The Sun Devils could be looking at a crowded backfield in July, but Middlebrooks welcomes the challenge.
“It’s always good to establish yourself now and early so you can get ahead on other people,” he said. “But at the same it will be good competition. I’m just going to keep trying harder and harder.”
Regardless of where he lands on the tailback depth chart, Middlebrooks is also looking forward to another big year returning kicks. He gained 423 yards on 16 returns as a freshman, followed by 394 yards on 17 returns last season.
Combined with senior wide receivers Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross, Middlebrooks is part of a dangerous return unit that returns all its weapons from a season ago.
He thinks the return game can only improve under Graham, who has put an emphasis on special teams this spring.
“Coach Graham is really into it in the meetings and making sure we’re doing things right,” Middlebrooks said. “Making sure we get our blocks, making sure we’re disciplined in our lanes and assignments and just getting after it.
“No matter who gets the ball, it doesn’t matter because we want to be No. 1 in the nation the nation in returning.”
Middlebrooks added he has already been impressed with how well the Sun Devils have responded to Graham’s fast-paced, disciplined approach to coaching.
“Our team has adapted really well with everything Coach Graham is trying to install in our program,” Middlebrooks said. “(His approach) has done well for us, and I think it’s for the good.”