FOR ARIZONA STATE, 2007 was a better year than expected. For running back Keegan Herring, last year was worse than he ever could have imagined. Herring was fine on the field, contributing significantly to the Sun Devils' 10--3 record, their first 10-win season since 1996, with 5.3 yards per carry and a total of 815 yards rushing. But a stunning number of personal tragedies tempered his enjoyment of that success.
His best friend, Calvin (C.J.) Adams, was shot to death in February 2007, and three days later Herring's father, Freeman, was killed in a shooting. In June, Herring's sister, Denisha Washington, died in a car accident. Three days later an aunt died of a heart attack. "It felt like the whole world was crashing in on me," Herring says. "Thank goodness I had my mother [Debra Griffen], because we gave each other strength."
Another setback, trivial in comparison, came during preseason camp, when Herring lost the starting job to senior Ryan Torain. But after Torain was sidelined for the season in the seventh game, Herring made sure the ground attack kept churning by averaging 103.5 rushing yards in that game and the three that followed. This season, as a senior, Herring (5'10", 195 pounds) is the undisputed No. 1 back, plus Arizona State has impressive depth at the position, including junior Dimitri Nance (5'10", 220), whose power complements Herring's speed.
The Sun Devils' ability to run the ball could be crucial even though they have the most experienced quarterback in the Pac-10, senior Rudy Carpenter. The line was fairly effective in blocking for the ballcarriers, but it surrendered 55 sacks last season, second-highest in the nation. With four new starters up front, pass protection is again a question mark, but a strong performance from Herring would help keep Arizona State out of obvious passing situations and blunt the rush.
Herring seems ready for the challenge. Known as perhaps the sunniest of the Sun Devils from the day he arrived on campus, he has kept an upbeat attitude even after the dark times he has endured. He still likes to approach stone-faced strangers, tell them he's collecting smiles, and ask if they would mind giving him one.
He'll put a smile on the face of coach Dennis Erickson if he has the breakout season that has long been expected of him. Even coming off a 10-win season, the Sun Devils believe that brighter days lay ahead in 2008. If they run into unexpected hard times, they need only look to Herring to show them how to survive.