Entering a 2012 football season that featured far more questions than certainties, many Arizona State fans took solace in the fact that no matter what happened, at least the Sun Devils would have a workhorse like Cameron Marshall anchoring their run game.
Marshall was fresh off his breakthrough 2011 campaign in which he lead the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns. Fresh off a 1,050-yard, 18-touchdown campaign, he seemed poised to prove he was one of the finest ball carriers in the country heading into his senior season.
Then, something peculiar happened.
Instead of toting the rock 250+ times, Marshall found himself in the middle of one of college football's most potent three-headed rushing attacks thanks to the emergence of two first-year Sun Devils. Marshall still led the trio in touches but it was the other two-thirds of the backfield that showed maroon and gold die-hards what "high octane" really means.
And neither of them saw it coming.
"With me being a newcomer and [Marshall] there...I didn't think I was going to be the impact player I was," said Marion Grice.
Although Grice never realized it, his presence alone made ASU's other breakout running back feel like he was fighting an uphill battle for playing time as well.
"Coming in, I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would see the field," said D.J. Foster. "But especially after seeing the athlete that Marion was, I was very surprised and happy I got the amount of [playing] time I did."
Perhaps we shouldn't have been too shocked to see things play out the way they did. After all, Grice came to ASU ranked as the nation's top junior college running back and Foster was listed as the No. 2 prospect in all of Arizona, according to Rivals.com. But even with the lofty evaluations, no one could have predicted all the ways they would each make their presence felt.
With the Sun Devils lacking a true go-to pass catcher, Grice and Foster were often called upon to operate as wide receivers. While both were apprehensive at first, no one seemed to complain about the on-field results.
"I was definitely blessed to be able to get into both [positions] but I really wasn't expecting that at all," Foster said. "It was just another way for me to get the ball in my hands and be able to make a play."
And make plays he did. Foster finished third on the team with 533 receiving yards and caught at least one pass in each game of his freshman campaign. Grice did much the same for the Sun Devils, finishing second in receptions behind Chris Coyle while also leading the team with eight receiving touchdowns. Given the chance, Grice says he'd gladly welcome more opportunities that start at the line of scrimmage.
"Whatever it takes for the team to get the win, I'm willing to do it," Grice said. "I didn't expect to be playing receiver but if I have to play it next year, I have no problem with it."
The rest of the conference probably wouldn't be too keen on that possibility though. Even factoring out Marshall's team-high 148 touches on offense, Grice and Foster still combined for the fourth-most yards from scrimmage in the Pac-12 behind Oregon, Arizona and UCLA's running-back tandems. Grice and Foster also were the conference's third-highest producer of total touchdowns from a running back duo, which is incredible when you consider that Marshall took ten scoring opportunities for himself.
Then again, ASU's Pac-12 rivals don't need statistics like those to make them shake in their boots. All they need to do is go pop in the game tape from the Devils' last matchup of the season: a 62-28 victory over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
With Foster sustaining a concussion in the first half, Grice exploded for a game-high 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries to earn the bowl's offensive MVP honors. But Grice was playing for something far greater than any title or recognition; he was playing for his brother, who was killed the previous week in an attempted robbery over his "Air Jordan" shoes.
"I really didn't think too much of it," said Grice of his career-best day. "I did it for my brother, I did it for my family and I did it for my coaches."
Grice may downplay the situation, but Foster admits it was impossible for him and his teammates not to be inspired by Grice's play.
"To see him excel like that for his family, it was definitely a beautiful thing," said Foster.
According to Foster, that's just one of the many ways in which the notoriously reserved Grice "leads by example."
"Just watching him play and the way he goes about it, I really learned a lot," said Foster. "He's probably one of the smoothest runners I've ever seen in my life."
Foster has taken particular note of Grice's fluidity in the trenches as the 5'11", 183-pound sophomore looks to show the world that he can be a "reliable back."
"I'm undersized but I can make up for that," said Foster confidently. "I just want to prove that I can run the ball up the middle five time in a row and be an every-down back."
And while Grice is the first to admit that the team "needs to find more ways to get [Foster] the ball in open space," he also truly believes that his backfield mate can reach his goal of becoming a well-rounded ball-carrier.
"I know he wants to take his game to the next level," Grice said. "[Foster] can be an in-between the tackles guy too. He'll be a balanced back before you know it."
If Foster is able to take that next step in 2013, the timing would be more than ideal for the Sun Devils. Now that Kenjon Barner has graduated from Oregon, both Grice and Foster realize that they're in the driver's seat to become the preeminent running-back tandem in the Pac-12.
"I really can't think of anyone else who has two dominant backs like us," acknowledged Grice.
It's that confidence that has allowed Grice to declare that his season goal is the Doak Walker Award or bust. While some may claim his head is in clouds, Foster knows better than anyone that Grice's objective is perfectly achievable as the duo continues to progress as both athletes and men.
"We worked really hard this offseason," Foster said. "Just having a year under our belt and learning the system even more...the sky is the limit for us. As high as we want to go, we can do it."