ASU possessed enough talent to be included in the Associated Press preseason top-25 rankings, but the voters felt differently. Two of the team's main offensive contributors, Marion Grice and Jaelen Strong, are used to outsiders second-guessing their abilities.
Grice and Strong are both former highly touted junior college football products, yet neither garnered serious interest from USC or UCLA. Ironically, Grice and Strong may be the Los Angeles schools' biggest obstacles on their quest toward the Pac-12 South title.
A second-year running back, Grice, headlines ASU's talented backfield and provides uncanny abilities to find pay dirt. In 2012, he posted 1,104 total yards and 19 touchdowns in spite of playing behind Cameron Marshall and D.J. Foster.
"I just work my way into the end zone every time," Grice on his touchdown prowess. "What's going through my mind is I hope we call a run play, and if we call a run play, going to get us there."
Two games into 2013, Grice clearly boasts the workhorse tag. Grice leads the team in carries with 36, 19 ahead of quarterback Taylor Kelly and 26 more than Deantre Lewis. His six total touchdowns are second in the country, meaning the expectations are only getting higher. The soft-spoken Texas native embraces the responsibility.
"I wasn't expecting it, but pretty much anything I have to do to help my team win I'm willing to do." Grice on his increased opportunities.
By putting up lofty numbers, Grice suddenly owns the Heisman dark horse label and could be one of the top running backs in the 2014 NFL draft class. The recognition must feel rewarding, but he just thinks of himself as a "regular guy."
Regardless of the increased attention, Grice isn't satisfied and plays with a chip on his shoulder due to previous challenges.
"A lot people can say little things about you, but you got to keep proving yourself every day." Grice said.
The most underrated part about Grice is his versatility. Grice dons the No. 1 jersey, but he beats defenses in numerous ways, capitalizing on favorable mismatches against linebackers in the passing game.
"I just basically try to expand my game and work on my catching every day," Grice said. "I don't want to be a guy who just runs the football."
Grice's biggest growth from year one to two can be seen in his pass blocking. Providing time for the quarterback isn't the running back's main obligation, yet it certainly pays huge dividends in third down situations.
"I just pretty much hit the bags and worked on pass blocking," Grice said. "Get with the o-line and ask them some of their techniques."
Learning Mike Norvell's complicated offense was a long process for Grice. After one full season under his belt, the senior running back feels at ease.
"I'm very comfortable and I have learned all my plays," Grice said. "Pretty much study everything I have to do and I just feel comfortable about my o-lineman. I just feel better now."
To make matters easier on the running game, the wide receiving core has stepped up. Jaelen Strong only sports two games at the Division I level and he may already be Taylor Kelly's top option on the outside.
Coach Graham said Strong was "the most dynamic player I've seen on film" prior to his arrival to the valley of the sun. Living up to that compliment hasn't been an issue, as Strong leads the team in receptions and yards with 12 and 162 respectively.
The numbers are impressive, but Strong knows he can do better. Strong walked me through his performance at Wisconsin and surprisingly didn't sound too pleased.
"Still not where I need to be, some people may say I did great. For me, I got a lot of work to do," Strong said. "I had all those pass interferences, I should've caught those. That's probably 60-65-70 more yards right there. I could help my team in position to score before the half. That would've opened up the margin and it wouldn't have even been close."
Strong still believes his to-do list is rather long. Going forward, Strong plans on spending the majority of his time working on his release off the snap. Strong also mentioned he needed to become a more polished route runner, while staying explosive.
It usually takes years for receivers and quarterbacks to become one cohesive unit, but Kelly and Strong are expediting the lengthy process. The young receiver wisely gives all the credit to Kelly.
"He's a great quarterback, so it doesn't take long for him to find you. It doesn't take long for him to find your speed," Strong said. "He's very smart and he knows what he's talking about all the time. So if he tells me something, ten out of ten times I'm listening to him."
During some points of training camp, Strong felt confused and overwhelmed, similar to Grice in his first year. Strong overcame the hurdles and settled in better than expected.
"Way more comfortable. Training camp, my mind was going crazy," Strong said. "I was out here trying to prove something; out here just worrying about the wrong things. I didn't have my focus on right. Now, I'm much more relaxed and taking it one day trying to get to the championship."
ASU's chances at getting to the promised land are significantly higher if opponents cover Strong with 1-on-1 coverage, like Wisconsin elected to do. Strong burned the Badgers in the mono-y-mono situations, thanks to wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander's emphasis on that area.
"That's what we practice for. We're out here in practice just working on those 1-on-1's. We do 1-on-1's every single day," Strong said. "And it's for that reason I have results like I did last Saturday."
The duo of Grice and Strong complement each other well, keeping defenses honest. The two know what it's like to be overlooked, but both are beginning to know what it's like to be in the spotlight.