In 2012, Arizona State experienced a revival on the ground.
Thanks to a trio of talented running backs and quarterback Taylor Kelly's nimble feet, the Sun Devils pounded out 2,670 yards, the team's best total since the magical 1996 season, and the second-highest total since 1981.
Heading into that season, many expected that senior Cameron Marshall would continue his assault on the program's record books after his explosive 2011, but that never materialized. While Marshall struggled and saw his carries cut, newcomers Marion Grice and D.J. Foster emerged as the team's best playmakers, provided countless highlights throughout the year.
With spring practices set to begin on March 19th, the loaded backfield of 2012 has given way to a top-heavy depth chart in 2013. We know that Grice and Foster will be good-to-great, but after that dynamic duo, the cause for concern is significant.
Can Deantre Lewis return to his pre-gunshot form? Can Terrell Davis live up to his namesake? Does anyone have the "no injury" cheat codes for Grice and Foster?
The 15 spring practices will help determine whether the team will be again feeling happy with their depth, or running on a razor's edge with each carry.
- Marion Grice: 679 yards rushing, 425 receiving, 19 total touchdowns in 2012
- D.J. Foster: 493 yards rushing, 533 receiving, six total touchdowns
- Deantre Lewis: 39 yards rushing
- R.J. Robinson: 20 yards rushing
- Terrell Davis
- Dante Alexander
- Marcus Washington
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. Of course, getting three in 2012 helps offset this to a degree, but bringing in talent in next year's class is now essential.
- Cameron Marshall: 583 yards rushing, 99 yards receiving, 10 total touchdowns in 2012
- James Morrison: 57 yards rushing, two receiving
Keep an Eye On: Terrell Davis
The British Columbia native redshirted last season, but not before having a solid fall camp and putting on a show in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage, running for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Davis is solidly built at 6-foot, 225 pounds, and uses that size to run with power. He also has a speed element to his game, with a 40 time in the mid 4.5s. Another element of his game that is attractive to the coaching staff and their "own the ball" mentality is his ball control. In his final season in high school, he did not fumble in over 150 touches. Nothing finds a Sun Devil back the bench quicker than putting the ball on the turf (see: Marshall, Cameron).
Given the lack of any proven commodity behind Grice and Foster, Davis could begin to earn some meaningful carries as a between-the-tackles option much as the team used Marshall last season.
Biggest Strength: Lethal 1-2 Punch
With the graduation of Kenjon Barner at Oregon, Grice and Foster are legitimately in the discussion for the best backfield combination in the Pac-12.
Grice showed at the end of the season what kind of damage he could do as a feature back with 315 yards, five touchdowns and a stunning 9.8 yards-per-carry mark over the final two games. His receiving skills were excellent, and his eight touchdowns through the air were the most by any running back in the country. With a year under his belt at the NCAA level, the sky is the limit for the 200-pound senior.
Foster largely lived up to his significant hype as a true freshman. Lining up in the backfield and as a receiver, Foster compiled big play after big play with his explosiveness and versatility. Whether it's on the ground or through the air, Foster is a touchdown waiting to happen, and the coaches will continue to look to get him the ball in space. Like Grice, Foster should take a major step forward with a year of Pac-12 experience now behind him.
Run or pass, this duo makes defenses pick their poison.
Biggest Concern: Depth
While the top of the depth chart is looking mighty fine, the names below bring about nothing but question marks. With no incoming talent in the 2013 recruiting class, the team will work with returning pieces, all of whom either have major concerns or a complete lack of game experience.
Most eyes will be on Lewis. Every Sun Devil fan is aware of his story by now: Dynamic gamebreaker as a true freshman in 2010, innocent gunshot wound victim in 2011, and part-time two-way player in 2012. Now returned to the backfield after a stint in the secondary, Lewis continues his diligent work back to form. At 5-11 and 190 pounds, Lewis may never become the electric playmaker he once was, but he does have the ability to be a solid contributor in both the running game and as a receiver.
As mentioned above, Davis' size and speed blend should get him in the mix for the No. 3 back job, but after him, it gets rough.
Redshirt senior R.J. Robinson has just 10 carries in his three season, and continues to be a special teams player. Juco transfer Dante Alexander is a walk-on who doesn't figure to see the field. Marcus Washington moved from running back to tight end last season.At 6-foot and 224 pounds, his frame is ill-suited for tight end, but he has some decent running skills.
What It All Means
As long as Foster and Grice stay healthy, the running back spot will continue to be the strength of a productive Sun Devil offense (knocks on wood). By land or air (and given their skills, probably sea, too), that duo should put up very impressive numbers, and with two capable backs, neither will be overworked.
However, the team will need depth to develop. Counting on the injury return of Lewis or a player like Davis who has yet to log a carry is a perilous position for a team eyeing the Pac-12 South crown.
There is plenty of time for the team to develop a third and fourth option, and that process will begin on March 19th. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen.
2013 Spring Football Primer Series