Sun Devil Six Pack: ASU running back preview

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By Christian Petersen By Christian Petersen

TEMPE, Ariz -- Pick your poison, Pac-12.

Do you want Marion Grice to gash your front seven, or D.J. Foster to haul in a pass and race past your secondary?

Arizona State's running backs were the offense's strength in 2012, but not in the way many expected. Rather than rely on a player coming off a 1,000-yard, 18-touchdown season, the Sun Devils found two gems in their recruiting class that instantly became stars.

Now, Grice and Foster are back looking to help lead a potent ASU offensive attack. While that duo is more than a handful for the opposition, they are not alone, as the depth chart has a few other talented players looking to contribute this fall.

We break down six major elements facing the position heading into the 2013 season.

1) Can Grice be "the man"?

Heading into last season, the heralded Cameron Marshall was supposed to be ASU's feature back, with Foster and Grice mixing in to the rotation. It didn't really work out that way, as Grice and Foster emerged as the team's top weapons.

With Marshall gone, Grice now looks to parlay a strong end to the season and an offseason spent conditioning into a role as the go to back. It isn't often that a 19-touchdown year remains under the radar, but Grice is experiencing just that

Grice has a rare blend of size (6-foot, 207 pounds), speed, agility, and receiving skills that make not only has him poised for a breakout year, but also on the radar of NFL scouts. He has the build of a prototypical lead back, and while he won't be called upon to be a consistent 20-carry-per-game runner due to the depth of the position, his workload should nevertheless be extensive.

If he remains healthy, look for Grice to top 1,000 yards rushing and score over a dozen total touchdowns. 

2) Sophomore surge

After signing with ASU, D.J. Foster was labeled a "hometown hero". Following his freshman year in which he earned Freshman All-American honors, he showed that such praise was warranted.

From the first play of the season, in which he caught a 16-yard pass after lining up as a wide receiver, the versatile Foster proved to be a dynamic playmaker. He rushed for 493 yards and two scores (averaging 4.8 yards-per-carry) and caught 38 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns, and arguably was the team's best wide receiver throughout the year.

Over the offseason, Foster worked hard in the team's strength and conditioning program and has now bulked up to nearly 200 pounds to add a power element to his game while keeping the speed and explosiveness that are his trademarks. 

During fall camp, Foster has often been the offense's best weapon, and he has even seen time returning kickoffs. Quite simply, having the ball in Foster's hands means good things for the Sun Devils.

Foster is a rare talent in the mold of a J.R. Redmond, and he seems to be just scratching the surface of his talent. He has said that the Heisman Trophy is one of his goals, and while that may be unrealistic this fall due to Grice's presence, the sky truly is the limit for ASU's super sophomore.

3) Tag team champs?

For years, Oregon has had a stranglehold on the Pac-12's "best backfield" title, but their reign may be at an end.

While the Ducks are again loaded with talented players like De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall, Grice and Foster are now garnering regional and national attention as one of the elite duos in the nation.

Able to do it all, the Sun Devil tandem will be counted upon to once again be the focal point of the ASU offense. That's a fact not lost on opposing defenses, who will be keying on the pair first and foremost, especially given the raw nature of ASU's wide receivers.

Last year, both Grice and Foster topped 1,000 yards of total offense and they combined for 25 touchdowns. It's not inconceivable, given their talent, experience, and expected workload, for them to combine to exceed 2,500 yards and 30 scores .

Oregon's backs have excelled even with defenses doing everything in their power to stop them, and for Grice and Foster to match that lofty standard, they must do the same.

4) Deantre's comeback

With one of the top 1-2 punches in the country, it may be easy to overlook the rest of the team's depth chart. 

Terrell Davis offers a power element to the group, while Marcus Washington gives some versatility, having seen time at tight end. But no one in the backfield is as much as a wildcard as Deantre Lewis.

The freshman phenom from 2010 appears to finally be back to his old self after the long road to recovery from a bullet wound suffered in February of 2011. Throughout spring and fall camps, Lewis has shown the agility, explosiveness, and versatility that made him a gamebreaking threat three years ago.

So confident in his ability, the ASU coaching staff has been working on plans to use Grice, Foster, and Lewis on the field simultaneously in situations this season. The 190-pounder is dangerous as both a runner and receiver, and should he stay healthy, Lewis could give ASU the best backfield depth in the nation.

5) Primary receivers, Part II?

Thanks in large part to the ineffectiveness of the team's wide receivers, ASU running backs accounted for over 34 percent of the team's receptions in 2012. 

The early returns from fall camp surrounding the team's new wide receivers has been largely positive, and there is legitimate hope that the Sun Devil offense will be able to finally find effective targets outside and downfield.

But is more passes going away from Grice and Foster a good idea?

Foster is arguably the team's best receiving threat, and Grice's eight receiving touchdowns were the most of any running back in the FBS. It's easy to draw the conclusion that the more the ball is in their hands, the better.

But like anything in the sport, finding a balance will be key. The more success the wide receivers have downfield, the more open field the backs will find, and the more effective the backs are on the short and intermediate routes, the easier it will be for the receivers to get behind the defense.

6) Middlebrooks on the mend

Back in 2010, freshman Kyle Middlebrooks teased ASU fans with some impressive play in spot duty. However, he disappointed greatly the following year, bounced around between running back and wide receiver, and then suffered an ACL injury.

He's now back on the practice field, and the diminutive speedster looks to finish his ASU career in a productive way. If he can stay healthy, Middlebrooks has the speed, agility, and versatility to be a factor much in the way Foster is used.