Typically, a "running back by committee" approach is a sign that a team doesn't have a starting-caliber back. For Arizona State, it means that they have two—or maybe three—such players.
After his sensational 2011 season, Cameron Marshall was supposed to lead the Sun Devil backfield while breaking several records. However, a pair of newcomers had other ideas.
True freshman D.J. Foster and juco transfer Marion Grice emerged quickly as the team's top offensive playmakers, showing gamebreaking ability on the ground and through the air.
Grice and Foster return as arguably the top 1-2 running back punch in the Pac-12, and by season's end could lay claim to the national crown as well.
But they're not alone. The return to form of a one-time star and some intriguing young talent give the Sun Devils a deep group.
- Sr. Marion Grice - 6-foot, 204 pounds
- So. D.J. Foster - 5-foot-11, 199 pounds
- RS Jr. Deantre Lewis - 5-foot-11, 188 pounds
- RS Fr. Terrell Davis - 6-foot, 232 pounds
- RS Jr. Marcus Washington - 6-foot, 208 pounds
- RS Sr. R.J. Robinson - 5-foot-9, 173 pounds
- RS So. Dante Alexander - 5-foot-9, 190 pounds
- Sr. Kyle Middlebrooks - 5-foot-9, 186 pounds
- The Sun Devils did not bring in a running back in their 2013 recruiting class, the second time that a class has not had a back over the last three seasons.
- Cameron Marshall
- James Morrison
Starting Lineup: With the new dynamic duo in the backfield, ASU will once again put the offensive onus on Grice and Foster. During spring, Grice, who has a larger and thicker build than Foster, emerged as the team's lead back.
"Right now, Marion is taking that role and will take more of the load to start out, but DJ has the ability to do the same thing. We feel confident in both of these guys in either role," said Graham.
After spending most of last season as a complementary piece, Grice showed during the final two games of the year that he is capable of being a prototypical workhorse, topping 150 yards rushing against both Arizona and Navy. On the year, Grice led the team with 679 yards and 11 scores on the ground.
Grice also has great value as a receiver, showing crisp route running and sure hands. His eight receiving touchdowns were the most of any running back in the nation, and with continued questions at wide receiver, he should once again see a lot of throws his way.
Foster will join Grice in the starting lineup, using his explosiveness and elusiveness to great effect, both out of the backfield and at wide receiver. He totaled 1,026 yards of total offense and scored six touchdowns, and had 14 plays of over 20 yards. That performance earned Foster Freshman All-American honors.
Camp Battle to Watch: 3rd RB
While Grice and Foster are known quantities, the team is searching for a reliable third back on the depth chart.
It could have new help from an old name if Deantre Lewis's return to form can be maintained. Lewis's story is well known by now, and during spring practice, he showed the flashes of gamebreaking talent he displayed during his freshman year in 2010.
“I’m just ready to go out there and prove what I can do," Lewis told me last month. "My talent out there is something special.”
Such was his performance in spring that the coaching staff has been devising ways in which to get Grice, Foster and Lewis on the field simultaneously.
The chief challenger for that third slot on the depth chart is Terrell Davis. While Grice, Foster, and Lewis are all dynamic threats as a runner or receiver, Davis adds a power element a 232 pounds. He was a standout during last year's fall camp, and coming off a redshirt, looks to get into the mix for carries.
X-Factor: Lewis...No, The Other One
While Grice, Foster, and Lewis look to carry the load for the team, another Lewis could help to provide a dynamic change-of-pace to the group.
Incoming freshman Ronald Lewis comes to Tempe as a wide receiver, but the 6-foot, 185-pounder from Louisiana has experience as a multi-purpose weapon, including carries our of the backfield, sweeps, and runs from the Wildcat formation.
Lewis told me that the ASU coaching staff will be using him out of the backfield on occasion. (full Q&A with Lewis here)
"They’re going to motion me in and out of the backfield. They’re going to use me as a Wildcat, and at wide receiver. They’ll motion me to the backfield and give me a couple of carries."
If Lewis can learn the offense and become that versatile change-of-pace, it will make for many sleepless nights for the opp
Overall Situation: 5 pitchforks out of 5
Any team would love to have a freshman All-American returning. Any team would love to have a dynamic 200-pounder coming back after scoring 19 touchdowns.
ASU has both, and they may also have finally unseated Oregon as having the most potent backfield in the conference.
Fall camp will be about keeping that duo healthy and finding new ways for them to attack the defense. The team will be looking to find reliable depth behind them, and if Lewis can show during the next few weeks that he is up to the challenge, this could be one of the nation's elite backfields.