"Isn't D.J. Foster a running back?"
That's a question that almost every Sun Devil fan asked throughout the first few weeks of the 2013 season. Foster, one of the most versatile athletes at Arizona State, came to the Sun Devils as a highly regarded running back prospect out of high school.
Foster's talents are well suited to the running back position, but last season, the Sun Devils simply didn't have a use for him in the backfield in their main offensive sets.
It's not that Foster didn't have the skills or the body type to thrive as a running back, it's that Arizona State needed the Scottsdale native to contribute to its offense in a different way.
With Marion Grice able to handle the rigors of being an every-down back and Arizona State lacking a truly dynamic weapon in the slot, the Sun Devil coaching staff made a brilliant decision. Todd Graham and Mike Norvell elected to use Foster as the main slot receiver, which allowed Arizona State to maximize its athleticism and speed on the offensive side of the football.
After insisting upon labeling Foster a running back for the first few weeks of the season (likely to keep opponents' guessing), the Sun Devils decided to embrace the concept of benefitting from Foster's status as a utility player and just kept lining him up in the slot.
Ultimately, Foster proved that the coaching staff knew what it was doing, as he finished the season with 63 catches for 653 yards and four receiving touchdowns. Foster averaged nearly 50 yards per game through the air, and in many games, his explosive plays helped ignite the offense.
When Marion Grice went down with an injury late in the game against UCLA, Foster assumed his natural position and stepped right into the starting running back role. The sophomore left no doubt about his return to the backfield as he rushed for 130 yards and two touchdowns in a 58-21 win over Arizona in his first game as the starter.
Foster continued to rack up solid statistics as a back, rushing for an average of 7.75 yards per carry in the Pac-12 title game against Stanford and 6.6 yards per carry in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
But ultimately, Foster's presence in the backfield left a massive void at the slot receiver position. Foster's replacement, Kevin Ozier, never managed more than two catches in the three games Foster started in the backfield and Arizona State sometimes abandoned the use of a slot receiver altogether. In fact, Foster was his own best replacement as he still amassed four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in the Stanford game.
The Sun Devils have far more options on offense when they have a playmaker at slot receiver, but with the graduation of Grice, Foster should make the permanent move back to running back. With an inexperienced but promising receiving corps gearing up for 2014, that leaves a lot of work left to be done to ensure that the offense picks up where it left off.
And that's where the new recruits come in.
An offense that scores north of 40 points per game isn't hard to sell on the recruiting trail, and Graham and Norvell picked up a number of players who they believe can be successful in the slot.
The top two candidates both hail from the junior college ranks, and both have blazing speed.
Eric Lauderdale, a 4-star recruit out of Saddleback Community College, can play both the slot (Y-receiver) and the side opposite Jaelen Strong (Z-receiver). Lauderdale has breakaway speed, and at 6-foot-2, can create matchup problems if the Sun Devils use him on the inside.
"I think (he) will be a great tandem with Jaelen, and a guy that really has big play explosive capabilities," Graham said of Lauderdale on Signing Day.
The Sun Devils can use Lauderdale in a number of ways, and that can allow them to explore the opportunity of moving Richard Smith to the slot. Lauderdale has considerably better size than Smith and will bring more physicality to the offense, and Smith looks like a natural fit at the slot.
Though Smith struggled with drops last season, he still managed to haul in 32 receptions for 276 yards and figures to be a focal point of the offense moving forward. At 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds, Smith can play inside with the larger Lauderdale outside which gives Arizona State better run blocking on the edge from its receivers, another idea Graham likes.
"We felt like offensively what we needed to do is add to the explosiveness of our offense, and number one, add to the physicality of it, as well, and that's something ‑‑ we're a run, play action, pass football team," Graham said.
Lauderdale is expected to become a major contributor, but he's not a natural slot receiver. It's hard to find recruits who played the slot in high school or in junior college, but signee De'Chavon (Gump) Hayes looks more than capable. Hayes is a running back out of Lackawanna Community College and though his highlight film shows him at running back, he looks the part of a slot player.
Hayes has tremendous breakaway speed and runs well in the open field. If Arizona State can get the ball to Hayes on bubble screens and quick slants (two primary routes for a slot receiver), defenses could be in trouble. On Signing Day, Graham talked about how he looks forward to making Forrest Gump references with his new recruit.
"Get your stop signs ready because this guy here is really, really dynamic," Graham said. "When he called me today, I said, "run, Forrest, run." We're excited about Gump. That's why he's nicknamed that because he runs through the back of the end zone pretty quick."
Hayes's experience comes at the running back position, but one of the things Graham and Norvell do well is outline where they can make the most of their top players. On defense, the coaching staff moved Chris Young around to various linebacker spots based on the schemes they faced. Offensively, D.J. Foster and Chris Coyle are just two of the players who have seen their roles change based on team needs.
If indeed Foster stays in the backfield in 2014, Arizona State should have far more options in the slot than it did a season ago. New signees Tyler Whiley, Jalen Harvey and Kalen Ballage are also capable of changing the shape of this offense in their first year at Arizona State, so while the future remains uncertain at the slot receiver spot, it is definitely bright.