Most everything in life is cyclical. Trends in fashion, music, style and politics all seem to get second and third lives eventually. The same can be said football philosophies.
The ground-and-pound, "three yards and a cloud of dust" run-heavy offensive schemes have fallen by the wayside over the last decade (outside of Madison and the service academies, that is) in favor of the spread. The multiple wide receiver attack lends itself well to video game like passing and scoring numbers and is continuing its proliferation across campuses.
With a new offense under coordinator Mike Norvell, the Sun Devils will still run a spread like they have in recent years, but instead of Brock Osweiler setting multiple school passing records, this year's team will run, run and run some more.
Beyond the philosophy and playcalling, two factors suggest this shift should be a productive one.
First, the team passing game will be a work in progress. The Sun Devils will be breaking in a new starting quarterback for the fifth straight season, and with the team's top three wide receivers from a year ago all departed, it will take some time to put together a consistent aerial attack.
Second and most decisively, is the backfield talent.
First and foremost is senior Cameron Marshall. In 2011, he became the first ASU runner to top 1,000 yards since Ryan Torain in 2006. His 18 rushing touchdowns tied the school's single-season record. A dynamic blend of size and speed, Marshall is among the top backs in the Pac-12.
After that comes James "Tank" Morrison, who parlayed a very strong spring into new life. His powerful running style fits in well with what the team aims to do in the running game. Kyle Middlebrooks is a speedy scatback type player who was also having a strong spring before minor shoulder surgery sidelined him. Also in the mix is Deantre Lewis, who came back strong this spring after missing all of 2011 recovering from a gunshot wound. While he is still not yet back to 100%, he showed during his freshman season in 2010 that he is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball in both the running and passing games.
That in itself makes for a very solid and deep unit, but that's not all.
In the 2012 recruiting class, the team added two big-time playmakers. First, they snagged four-star recruit D.J. Foster, an exceptionally talented running back from nearby Saguaro High School. He is an explosive player, and figures to be a threat both as a runner and receiver. The Sun Devils also added Marion Grice, another four-star talent and the top rated junior college player at the position. He has a similar size and speed blend like Marshall and brings yet another potent weapon.
This wealth of pure talent makes the running back position the strongest single unit of any ASU team in quite some time. But how will it stack up to the all-time best Sun Devil backfields?
Opening up and examining the Sun Devils record book, it's easy to locate the (maroon &) golden era of Sun Devil running: 1970-1973. Six times in school history, the Sun Devils have topped 3,000 rushing yards as a team, and the 1970 to 1973 seasons account for four of them.
The peak years were 1972 and 1973, when the team totaled 7,709 yards and 87 touchdowns. For comparison, over the last four seasons, ASU has totaled 6,588 yards and 74 scores. Not surprisingly, those two years were the final two seasons of Woody Green's illustrious career. Nearly 40 years after his final snap as a Sun Devil, Green still holds the school records for career rushing attempts (675), yards (4,188) and touchdowns (43), as well as the top single season yardage total (1,565) in 1972.
First, let's look at 1972.
Obviously, Green was the star, en route to the single-season record in yards and touchdowns, and a consensus spot on the All-American team. However, he was joined in the backfield by fullback Brent McClanahan, who garnered All-WAC honors with 1,159 yards and 12 touchdowns of his own. McClanahan was then a fifth round pick by the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he played for seven years. Alonzo Emery added 439 yards, and Benny Malone, had 371 yards and another six touchdowns. For good measure, quarterback Danny White had another 222 yards.
A year later, the overall production tailed off a bit, but the team still was dominant. Green was again a consensus All-American and All-WAC player with 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns, but it was the emergence of Malone that really helped to put the Sun Devils over the top. He finished with 1,186 yards and led the team with 15 rushing touchdowns. Rounding out the group was Emery (297 yards), Ron Cuie (200 yards in his only season at ASU) and a young runner named Freddie Williams, who chipped in with 182 yards. However, greater things were in store for Williams, who would run for 2,726 yards in 1974 and 1975, and finish second only to Green on the school's all-time rushing list.
The NFL took notice of the potent duo of Green and Malone. Green was selected with the 16th overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs and Malone was a second round pick (47th overall) by the Miami Dolphins.
It's a nearly impossible task to adequately compare teams from different eras, given the differences in rules, conditioning, style of play and so forth. Simply going by stats is often misleading. Even though the 1973 team ran for less yards that in 1972, it's hard not to give the edge to the the Green-Malone-Williams trio as the greatest collection of backfield talent ASU has every seen.
Then again, by sheer number of capable backs, this year's six-headed beast (barring redshirts) could very well stake a claim to most talented. It is in turning that "talent" into "production" that the final slot on the all-time list will be determined.
Given the length of the depth chart, it is unlikely Marshall will approach last year's numbers. While his total stats should decline, it's hard not to anticipate his level of play will not improve, and a line of 800 yards and 10 touchdowns may be realistic. If Morrison is able to fill the top backup role, he may tally another 500 yards or so, and the speedy trio of Foster, Lewis and Middlebrooks should put up several hundred yards both rushing and receiving. The wild card may be Grice. It's not out of the realm of possibility for him to redshirt, but if he does play, he should be able to get a few carries per game. If things go well, this group should help ASU top the 2,000 total rushing yard mark for just the second time since 2000.
How will this year's group match-up against the best of the Kush era? We'll know in a few month. While there may never be a "right" answer, there also will never be a shortage of rushing yards, bar room debates or great gridiron memories.
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