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D.J. Foster: No Ordinary Hometown Hero

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D.J. Foster's run to be a great player & a better person has been anything but easy.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

As he went to bed that night, he had no idea what he would do.

He weighed the pros, the cons, everything in between, and then did it again. Back and forth. The minutes ticked by. He remained torn and restless.

Having to make one of the biggest decisions that you'll ever face will do that to you.

By the time he fell asleep, the decision that so many people across the country were anxiously awaiting was still no closer to being made.

That changed in the morning. The light of day allowed him to see what mattered most to him: family. The last three years had seen no shortage of twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies. Now it was going to end where it had begun.

On the morning of Jan. 27, 2012, he entered a room at Saguaro High School that was filled with reporters, cameras, family, and friends.

As he took his seat at the table, he didn't feel any nerves. Instead, he felt true happiness.

D.J. Foster was staying home.

*   *   *   *   *

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham calls him "one of the best football players I've ever coached."

"Among the playmakers I've seen at ASU, D.J., with his athletic ability and his speed, is as electrifying as any of them," said team play-by-play announcer Tim Healey, who has covered the team for nearly three decades.

"I'm proud to have the opportunity to coach him," ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said.

"He can do more things than anyone I have ever seen," said Sun Devil running backs coach Bo Graham.

Ask anyone who has watched Foster in action on the field for their take of ASU's junior running back, and the answers will verge on being hyperbolic, but remain rooted in reality.

His speed. His agility. His explosiveness. Two years after staying true to ASU, Foster is well on his way to securing his place among the program's all-time best.

Entering the 2014 season, the only things greater than his potential are the expectations.

*   *   *   *   *

D.J. Foster first took the field in elementary school, playing flag football in the school yard. Like most kids, it was just one sport of many that he played, but D.J. was different than the rest. He was a lot better.

That natural ability led him to play Pop Warner football, and in middle school, he caught the eye of his future coach, mentor, and friend.

"When you bring a guy like that into your program, it's going to make everyone better." - Mike Norvell

"I first spotted D.J. when he was playing youth football for a group called the Argonauts," said John Sanders, then the head football coach at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. "When he enrolled at Saguaro as a freshman, it didn't take much to figure out how great of an athlete he was. I knew early on he was going to be really good."

The only problem for Sanders was that Foster's initial success came on the hardwood, not the gridiron.

"He was the freshman quarterback and played on defense," Sanders said. "I wanted to move him up to varsity, but he was also the starting point guard as a freshman on the varsity team. Rather than come up and play varsity football, he went on to basketball."

With two varsity teams for a powerhouse high school vying for his services, the humble Foster first began getting the notion he could be pretty good.

"That's when I kind of knew that I could make something out of this," said Foster.

Sanders' wait was only temporary. The kid that may felt would be the next great Arizona prep star was set to make his varsity football debut for the Sabercats in the fall of 2009 as a sophomore.

Then tragedy struck.

Foster's sister Jennifer died of an accidental drug overdose just weeks before his first varsity game. Foster—then just 15 years old—saw his world slam to a halt, putting him at a crossroad.

Through the pain, he found solace in football and his teammates.

"After my sister passed, I almost went another route, not a good route," said Foster. "Football was really my outlet to get away and clear my head and put my energy to something positive. I don't know where I'd be without the game of football."

The entire Sabercat program rallied in support of Foster, bringing him back slowly but surely.

"It was hard on all of us because we cared so much about D.J., and D.J. was hurting," Sanders said. "I know for a fact that he felt the entire football team rally around him. He felt the love and support of his teammate and our coaching staff."

Over time, Foster began to heal while keeping Jennifer's memory at the forefront.

"D.J. was D.J. and started focusing on football," said Sanders. "He felt like he was playing for her. He had her name on his shoes and different reminders of his sister."

"It was hard to go out there and bring passion to something when you are so defeated," said Foster. "I had great support, and I channeled my anger into football. That's what gave me my motivation to keep playing."

When Foster returned to the field, he was a changed person and player.

"After her passing, D.J. played real angry," said Sanders. "He was always a really tough, competitive athlete, but he was a different guy with the ball after that. He wouldn't avoid any tackler. He would take guys on and light them up. In some ways, he used his anger and hurt to fuel football."

*   *   *   *   *

A newly motivated Foster became a potent dual threat for the Sabercats as a sophomore, and his hometown college took notice.

"ASU was my first offer, after my sophomore year," said Foster. "Coach (Dennis) Erickson offered me a scholarship during spring ball going into my junior year."

It was a development that Sanders enjoyed, especially as the offers poured in from around the nation.

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Christian Petersen - Getty Images

"I wanted them (ASU) to get in early on D.J. and get the first offer in. Selfishly, I would like D.J. to stay home so I could watch him play. He had a lot of offers. It got down to where he would have literally 50 pieces of mail per day. Schools like Alabama would send five huge envelopes every day."

With an endless line of suitors, Foster grew weary. Deep down, he wanted to stay home and be a Sun Devil, a fact to which stacks of unopened mail can attest.

"I think D.J. got tired of the recruiting process," Sander said. "I kept bags of D.J.'s mail because he got tired of looking at it. I think early on he made the decision to go to ASU. However, Cal and some other teams were still there. But I don't think D.J. opened any of his mail at the end. I encouraged him to keep it, because one day he'd have a son and he should let his son keep it. I don't think he ever opened it. I still think he has a big box of letters."

Foster was ASU's recruit to lose. And they did.

After a 6-2 start to the 2011 season, the Sun Devils under Erickson lost their final five games. It was a collapse that cost the program a division title, their head coach, and Foster's early commitment.

"He's a real good ‘program guy', a guy that you want to be the face of your program," -Tim Healey

"It was tough. That was a hard part of my recruitment because Coach E was the one recruiting me pretty much the whole time," said Foster. "I was really thinking about committing early. I knew that if they lost, his job would be on the line. They lost one game, I took a step back. They lost again. Now I have to rethink. They lost again. After the bowl game, the final loss, I had to reopen my options. I was talking to other schools, but that was when I took my five officials. I almost went to a lot of other schools."

USC and Cal soon became major players in the D.J. Foster sweepstakes, and ASU fell further and further back as their coaching search dragged on with no end in sight. By the time the Sun Devils finally made their decision, hiring Todd Graham away from Pittsburgh on Dec. 14, 2011, National Signing Day was a little over seven weeks away.

The new staff had an uphill battle ahead, but they hit the ground running.

"I had always known of D.J. through recruiting as a top guy, but we had never really recruited him when we were at Pitt," said Norvell. "The day that we got the job here, he was the No. 1 target for us, being such a dynamic player and being such a tremendous fit for what we do. I thought it was a match made in heaven. We came in and tried as quickly as we could to develop that relationship with him."

"He was the No. 1 recruit in the state," Todd Graham said. "You have 30 days to recruit, and he was hard to get a hold of, and we didn't get a lot of positive feedback. No doubt, he was the target when we took the job."

ASU's recruitment was off to a rough start, but early on, both Graham and Norvell could sense Foster's hometown leanings.

"I think D.J. grew up wanting to be a Sun Devil. He's a guy whose family means a lot to him," said Graham.

Could they do enough to keep him in Arizona?

"I remember the first time I really met with D.J.," said Norvell. "I had to run up to the airport before he was going on another official visit, just so I could have the chance to see him and meet him."

"After the hire, a few days after he moved out here, he and Coach Norvell came and visited me at high school," Foster said of Graham. "That was my first meeting with them. I had a great meeting with them. They talked about a lot of great stuff, a lot of qualities that I care about being a man and a human being. That really connected with me. It was definitely a good first meeting with them."

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Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Those early weeks in Tempe for Graham and Norvell were a whirlwind of not only attempting to put together a recruiting class, but to reshape a program that had fallen into utter disarray.

"It was borderline miserable," said Graham. "You come in and have a lot of work to do. You have to change the culture of the existing players, build trust with your existing players, reestablish what your standards are, then go out on the road and recruit. You try not to, with compressed time, make too many mistakes. I think we were really fortunate to sign some really good guys, including D.J."

"We were just trying to show D.J. our hearts and let him know we had a very specific plan for him," said Norvell. "It wasn't just going to be what was on the football field, but to bring a culture and program here that was going to challenge him in every area, but continue to push to bring out the best in him as a young. Anyone who has spent any time around D.J. Foster knows he is a special person and a tremendous giver. D.J. had to put a lot of trust in us that what we were saying was going to come to fruition."

As Graham and Norvell feverishly attempted to build that relationship with Foster, the other colleges were also dealing with some uncertainty with their coaching staffs. That helped to level the playing field in Foster's mind.

"Their (Cal) coaching staff had their jobs on the line if they didn't win," said Foster. "Coach (Ron) Gould (then Cal's running backs coach) ended up getting fired. It was up in the air. Do I want to stay home and start with a new staff, or go somewhere else with a new staff? I was thinking about Oregon, and Coach (Chip) Kelly was thinking about leaving. USC's (staff) ended up leaving. Every school I was looking at, all the coaching staffs ended up leaving. That's the thing that it came down to.

"I would rather stay here and start with a new coaching staff."

*   *   *   *   *

D.J. Foster is a Sun Devil today for a number of reasons, but one of the more crucial was the efforts by one generation of Sun Devil helping to guide the next.

"I first met D.J. his sophomore year," said Kyle Caldwell. "I could see right away he was a special kid. He was one of those players that can do it all. He had the skills to play defense. He could play corner. He loved to hit. I always thought of him as a good DB player before I saw him explode his junior and senior season as a running back."

In 2003, Caldwell was a coveted four-star recruit and the top ranked prep player in the state of Arizona. After a fierce recruiting battle, Caldwell decided to stay home and play for the Sun Devils, where his father Bryan had starred in the early 1980s. During Foster's career, Caldwell was serving as one of Saguaro's strength coaches, and began to mentor the young star.

"His junior and senior year, we were able to spend a lot of time talking about what would be a good fit for him at the college," said Caldwell. "What playbooks would fit him, what themes he would be interested in on and off the field. We made it clear throughout the process that staying home, and when Coach Graham came was hired, that it would be the best fit for him. I think he saw that as soon as Graham got into it and started recruiting him."

From questions to the academic programs to offensive schemes to the best places to play around the conference, Caldwell became a valuable resource to Foster.

"He's been a great coach and friend for a long time," Foster said of Caldwell. "He was a Saguaro and ASU alumni, and he's a great guy. He didn't put a lot of pressure on me. He went through the process as well of being a top recruit. He gave me advice. At the end of the day, anybody who knew me, even one of the coaches who went to Cal, was pushing me to go to ASU. I took their advice in and I listened to what they had to say, but at the end of the day, I'm a grown man and made my decision on my own."

*   *   *   *   *

Now that he had committed to ASU, it didn't take long for Foster to show his fellow Sun Devils that he had that something special.

"From when he first got here, he picked up the offense," said quarterback Taylor Kelly of his first impressions of Foster. "The way he did these different cuts and catches, and his explosion. The biggest part was how hard he practiced. You could tell that his mindset in practice is just like in a game, and it shows out on the football field. He plays with so much passion at practice that it's second nature when he comes onto the field on game day."

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Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports Images

"When you bring a guy like that into your program, it's going to make everyone better," Norvell said. "You could turn on the film from day one and tell he was going to be a special football player, but when you get him out and how he fits the offense and the ways we are able to utilize him, I think it's a great compliment for what he does and how we use him."

The Sun Devils wasted no time in using Foster from the start.

"They told me ‘you're playing,'" said Foster. "I had no option to redshirt. I locked down, focused, and took it all in as fast as I could. I wanted to be ready for that first game. My coaches, my teammates, Cam Marshall, Marion (Grice), they helped me out and got me focused and ready for that season."

His old coach was around as well, further smoothing out the transition.

Graham had hired Sanders to a position on the football administrative staff in Jan. of 2012, and he provided as much, or as little, support as Foster needed during the transition to college.

"It was nice being there seeing him every day," Sanders said. "D.J.'s not a real vocal guy. He led by example, but I could tell by his body language where he's at with things. I could come by and talk to him and try to pick him up. I left him alone a lot. D.J.'s pretty much a loner like that. He doesn't need a whole lot of attention."

Foster's first game as a Sun Devil came in the 2012 opener against NAU. As he waited in Tillman Tunnel with his teammates to run out onto the field, the emotion of the moment, and the struggles before, hit him.

"It was one of the greatest feeling I've ever had in my life," said Foster. "I was so emotional. I was crying like a little baby. I was so excited and so happy to see how far I had made it. After all the ups and downs that I went through in high school. I came out the tunnel and saw my mom, my dad, my aunt, and my cousin."

Foster had no time to soak it all in. By design, the first play of the season, and that of the Todd Graham era at Arizona State, was coming to him.

Mike Norvell's offensive system is tailor-made for a player like Foster.

"I was nervous for it. Coach told me ‘first play of the game is coming to you. Be ready,'" Foster said. "I was excited. I was definitely honored that they trusted me and that they believed in my capability to go out and make a play as a freshman. They gave me the opportunity, and that really helped me in the long run to know that your coaches believed in you even though you are young."

Foster hauled in that pass for a gain of 16 yards, and he later rushed for a touchdown in the 63-6 victory. Over the next few weeks, his play got people talking.

"I knew as early as the Missouri game (Week 3) his freshman year when he scored a touchdown," said Healey. "It was a showcase game on the road against a good opponent on national television. He showed the skills, and you just knew early on that this kid was special. Talking to him after practices, he seemed like a very grounded young man and mature for his age."

With senior Cameron Marshall and fellow newcomer Marion Grice also sharing the backfield load, Foster began to see more and more time as a wide receiver, which caught the freshman a bit by surprise.

"I remember in year one, we were moving him around quite a bit, and his head was spinning around a bit because there was so many things we were able to do with him," said Norvell.

"At one point, I was a little confused going to receiver," Foster said. "But at the end of the day, I took a step back and realized how much of a blessing it was that the coaches were moving me around, and getting me the ball no matter where I was at. I knew I had great running backs in front of me. I learned a big lesson: patience. I knew that I would get my time. When the ball was thrown to me, go make a play."

Make plays he did, especially when the team needed him the most.

"He comes up big in big time games," said Kelly.

There was no greater example than that season's showdown against UCLA. With the Sun Devils trailing late in the fourth quarter, Foster caught a go-ahead touchdown in the corner of the endzone. While the defense soon surrendered the lead and the game, the scoring reception was a sign of great things to come.

On the year, Foster ran for 493 yards and two touchdowns and caught 38 passes for 533 yards and four more scores. His performance earned him a spot on the Freshman All-American team.

"It was amazing," Foster said of the honor. "I came in, and I felt like I was working so hard. I put in so much effort and time to play as a true freshman. To receive that at the end of the year made me realize that I was doing something right and that I was on the right path."

*   *   *   *   *

"I've watched him steadily get better. In watching him this spring, he's really turned into a young man," said ASU legend and current Pac-12 Network analyst Jake Plummer. "I look at him and he just looks different. You see the responsibility that he's taken on and the role he's assuming with Grice being gone. His impact is not going to just be on the field but off the field too as a leader and a tough kid that wants to compete."

When you start off a college career with such lofty accolades as Foster did, the growth curve, and the pressure, can be daunting. Now heading into his junior season, he's becoming the player and the person he wants to be, and the leader the Sun Devils need.

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Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

"When he first showed up, he was trying to get adjusted to the speed of the game," said Bo Graham. "Anytime you are a true freshman and you are going out there for the first time, you're not at an elite level. Now, he understands the game better. He's able to play faster."

"I've seen tremendous maturity over the last year, his leadership and example he is, the work ethic he has," said Todd Graham. "He's really taking the things that we want him to get better at and applying himself at the things we call the Sun Devil Way. He is one of the most competitive guys that I've ever been around. Tremendous leader. Tremendous person."

With the departure of Grice to the NFL, Foster is now the clear cut No. 1 option in the Sun Devil backfield, and arguably the team's highest-profile player. That brings with it the responsibilities of leadership, and Foster has thus far answered the call.

"I think he understands since he's established himself as one of our best guys that people are going to follow him," said Bo Graham. "He's done a good job accepting that responsibility and trying to lead that football team, vocally and by his hard work."

"I've always been a quiet guy, more to myself, but I'm being a leader on this team with the stuff that I say and the stuff that I do," Foster said. "I'm definitely more vocal. I felt like since the day I stepped on campus, I've felt I've been a leader in performing and work ethic. When I was younger, I didn't want to yell and scream, because I felt that wasn't my position at the time. Now, this is my team as well. I'm going to do whatever I can to help my teammates. Whenever the younger guys need help, I talk with them."

The addition of newcomers Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage to a backfield already featuring Foster and seniors Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks makes for an eclectic, yet talented group. Foster's position coach has seen his top weapon become a unifying force for the unit, never thinking twice about helping a teammate get better.

"He pushes the limit. He sets the pace, and those guys watch him," said Bo Graham. "We all learn from each other. His strengths are other guys' weaknesses. He can help them with that and vice versa. That's the biggest thing that he's helped us with."

"He's a rock star."   - Todd Graham

While his leadership abilities and maturity have grown greatly over the last two years, his giving nature is nothing new.

"D.J. Foster is very, very unselfish," Sanders said. "He is a kid that is very gracious, and I know that he feels blessed. He was very receptive and open to young kids at Saguaro and tried to help them. D.J. cares about people. He's a great person. I've seen D.J. on the sideline quietly working with walk-on kids, encouraging them. D.J. is a great leader, he's just quiet."

"There's not a person in this state that doesn't know who D.J. Foster is," Norvell said. "He's a guy that anytime we have anything with our fans in our community, he'll be out there for five hours signing autographs because everybody looks up to him, and rightfully so. To see that, and to see a guy that has had that kind of success stay humble to be such a giver and to be such a hard worker, it's a pleasure to coach.

"D.J. Foster is going to be successful no matter what he ever does. He'll play the game for a long time at the next level, but he has a state and a community that fully supports him. For what he has done, and will continue to do for ASU, is a special relationship."

*   *   *   *   *

"He's a rock star."

Todd Graham doesn't mince words when it comes to Foster's local profile.

"The guy is on our poster, he's on every billboard, he comes out of the tunnel," said Graham. "There's not anywhere else he could have signed where he would have that kind of claim."

"He's a real good ‘program guy', a guy that you want to be the face of your program," said Healey.

Indeed, D.J. Foster has become the face of Sun Devil football, and it's a position he doesn't take for granted.

"It's great. It's truly a blessing, and that's all I can take it as," Foster said. "I thank the coaches, I thank the community, I thank all the support. It's amazing how many people support me, people I don't even know. At the end of the day, I don't think about it too much. It's an honor to be on a poster, but I have to do what I have to do and perform and be a leader to my teammates."

A big reason for Foster's growing impact and status in the Valley is not just that he is a great player, he is our great player. There is just that something extra, that intangible connection that comes with a player emerging from right down the street doing the things he has done.

"I told D.J. that if you are going to make this your home, it's great to make a name for yourself in your hometown so that when you are finally finished playing, you have ties there and you are remembered in your home state for a long time," said Sanders

"I think D.J. has a tremendous amount of love for this university, for his hometown, and for this state," said Norvell. "To get a guy like that, who is such an incredible football player to come here and be showcased like he's been showcased, it's a special thing to seen."

"Go Devils. I'm ready to work. Let's get Rose Bowl championships."

That unique opportunity is something that Caldwell stressed to Foster years ago.

"One of the big things that you need to think about as a local guy who is heavily recruited is that yeah, you can go to the SEC," said Caldwell. "You can go to all these schools, and you can have a good career, an All-American. But in five years, are you still a legacy? Are you still being talked about? We play sports for a reason. We want to be remembered. We want to do special things. I think we made it clear that in 20 years, in 30 years, that he has a chance to still be talked about."

Being talked about decades later would be wonderful, but excuse Foster if earning the "hometown hero" title isn't the foremost thing on his mind. He just wants to make a positive impact, one life at a time.

"I take it in and let it go," Foster said of his growing celebrity status in Arizona. "When I meet Sun Devil fans, it's amazing. I love every second of it. I can sign as many autographs, I'll do anything. I love this community. You can't let it go to your head. You came here to play football, and there is so much more than that. My teammates are depending on me. My family. When I have the opportunity to talk to as many people as I can, it's a blessing."

Among those people he is talking to are some of the elite prep talents in the state of Arizona.

Since taking over, Todd Graham has made keeping the state's best high school players local a top priority. Foster's success has served as a tangible example of the potential impact the Valley's top talent can make in Tempe.

"A lot of the kids from the Valley now can see that it's a pretty good deal," Graham said of staying in-state. "Freshman All-American, him and Jaxon (Hood), guys locally that chose to go with us that year."

"I know a big focus of Todd's and his staff is to put a fence around the Phoenix area and keep the best talent here," Healey said. "D.J. was the first building block in that process to build that fence."

For his part, Foster uses his own experiences as a highly sought after target to walk a fine line between salesman and sympathizer.

"It's a very hard subject. I know how much pressure is in the recruitment process," Foster said. "I talked to Tyler (Whiley) a lot when he was going through his process, and I told the truth. I told him how we work here, and I said ‘If you want to be a part of this, this is the school for you. If this is how you want to work, this is the school for you.' Christian Kirk (2015 five-star wide receiver recruit from Saguaro), that's my little brother. He's an amazing player. At the end of the day, I'm going to be happy wherever he goes, but of course I would love him here. I'm going to tell him the truth about how hard we work and the potential of this program. He can be a huge part of it. I try not to be in their ear all the time, because I know it's a lot of stress on a high school kid."

Foster's efforts and approach are rubbing off on his teammates.

"He brings a lot of support in, and I want to do that too," said Whiley, now an ASU freshman defensive back and a product of Chaprral High School in Scottsdale. "If we keep doing that, more and more in-state recruits will stay here."

*   *   *   *   *

Through two seasons at ASU, Foster has run 195 times for 994 yards and eight touchdowns, and caught 101 passes for 1,186 yards and eight more scores. Over that span, he has created countless memories for fans, his teammates, and his coaches, and their collection of favorite "D.J. moments" reflects that variety.

"One of the things that sticks out is when Jaelen (Strong) caught the touchdown pass at UCLA," said Todd Graham. "There's a picture of them jumping up together. Clinching that game was huge for us. He's had so many big runs and big plays and shown so much toughness and durability. He's a dynamic player. I remember that play because that was such a big part of that game. The explosive plays against Stanford were two of the most impressive. The zone play that he cut back and went to the house was so impressive. Then he takes a bubble screen and goes 50-something yards. When he went down, that hurt us tremendously. He's been a very explosive back. He's going to be the ball in his hands a lot more than he has in the past."

Graham's son and running backs coach agrees.

"Last year against UCLA, when Jaelen took that ball to the endzone, Jaelen and D.J. jumped up and celebrated. It defined our season," said Bo Graham. "That just goes to show how good of a teammate he is and how much he cares about this football team and the guys around him. That was my favorite moment."

"Probably the ones against Stanford," said Kelly. "One was a run up the middle where he split one of our guys and a Stanford guy, and the bubble where he took it to the house. Those were very explosive and we needed those plays."

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Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The "Voice of Sun Devil Football" cited Foster's game-changing speed changing a game.

"One of his signature moments was the long touchdown reception early in the second half against USC," Healey said. "That came at a time when the Trojans were mounting a comeback. That play turned the tide. D.J. showed electrifying speed, breakaway speed on that touchdown run. What a glorious moment that must be for a kid like that."

Norvell's favorite moment came last year in the Territorial Cup victory over the rival Wildcats, and the reaction it evoked from the Sun Devil faithful.

"The Arizona game last year when he scored a touchdown on a perimeter run," said Norvell. "To hear Sun Devil Stadium erupt, and to see D.J. celebrate with his teammates, to see it all come to pass. We had won the Pac-12 South championship then playing in the Territorial Cup, to have the type of game he had, that was a special moment for me to see it come full circle."

For Caldwell, he doesn't remember a singular moment of the star he helped bring to ASU, but rather his hard-nosed mentality.

"D.J.'s not the biggest guy on the field, but he plays with the mentality that he's not going to shy away from bigger opponents. There's been so many times when he's laid the wood on guys, big linebackers that looks like he has the position to make a solid tackle on him, then D.J. lowers his shoulder. I think that happens just about every single game. My fun moments are watching him pull that off."

As for the man himself, Foster's favorite memory on the field came from performing his best when the stakes were at their highest.

"I love the moment in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Stanford," Foster said. "I didn't play much, but it's been a while since I got into a zone like that. I felt comfortable. It was such a big game, a huge opportunity. Stepping up in that first half meant a lot for me."

The only certainty when it comes to Foster's signature plays is that there are more on the way.

*   *   *   *   *

"This is a simple game. You get it to your best players," said Todd Graham.

He plans on doing just that this season.

"D.J.'s a guy that could rush for 2,000 yards and have 1,000 yards receiving," said Graham. "I told him that's all I want out of him. I'd love to see him touch the football—whether it's a run or a pass play—up to 30 times per game."

With Grice's departure, Graham has dubbed Foster the "premier back" for the Sun Devil offense, and with Foster's do-it-all skillset, he is primed for a huge year.

"He's our guy. He's the guy that we've got to get the ball to," Graham said. "He's so explosive, a one-play touchdown guy. You saw that against Stanford, two 50-plus-yard touchdowns in five minutes. The thing about him that I think puts him at an elite level is that he led the nation in receptions (by a running back) last year. He is such a threat running inside zone, outside zone, counter, power, and then he is one of the most lethal receivers. I don't know that I've seen a more versatile running back."

While Graham defines "premier back" in terms of usage and production, Foster sees it in more intangible terms.

"It means that it is my duty to lead every single running back in that group," Foster said. "That's my role to step up and be the voice of that group. I don't think ‘premier back' means who's getting the ball or what. I feel like we have a lot of guys who can play in that backfield. Me being the premier back means me being the leader of that group."

Foster was able to get a taste of the rigors of being the top back late last year when Grice suffered a season-ending injury late in the win over UCLA.

He was ready.

"I said ‘it's go time.' I love Marion. I couldn't believe that that happened, and it hurt me that it happened," Foster said. "I thought that I won't let this take a step back on our team. I looked at the O-line and said, ‘Nothing is going to change. I'm coming out to work hard for you guys. I'm going to perform.'"

Perform he did. In the next week's game against Arizona, Foster ran for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the 58-21 win. The next week in the Pac-12 Championship game, Foster reeled off 51 and 65-yard touchdowns and gained 142 yards from scrimmage on just 12 touches before leaving the game with an injury. To cap off the season, he ran for a career-high 132 yards and a touchdown in the Holiday Bowl.

"I think D.J.'s performances at the end of last season quelled any uneasy feelings or any doubts that he can carry the load as the feature running back," said Healey. "A lot of people, seeing him used in the many ways Mike Norvell has used him, mainly as a slot receiver, weren't sure if he could be an every-down feature back. Clearly he showed that he can be."

"Playing behind Marion for a couple of years, for him to finally get his opportunity to be that starting role player, he's worked hard for it," Kelly said. "A lot of times, people forget how good he is running the football because they've just seen Marion for the last two years. He's going to be a great asset for our team and our program this year."

When he came to Arizona State, Foster tipped the scales at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. Since that time, he's added nearly 20 pounds of muscle to his frame while maintaining and improving the explosive speed for which he is known.

"With Griz (strength coach Shawn Griswold) and the weight room, I think he's made great strides," Bo Graham said. "There's no doubt that his body is at a point where I think he can carry the load. I think he proved in the last couple games last year he's definitely going to be some to watch and is going to be very dangerous."

"I've no worries about it," Norvell said of Foster being the full-time running back. "He had to do that late in the year last year. He had two or three tremendous games. When you see the competitor that he is and how he plays in big games. He's prepared his body. He's almost 210 pounds. Strong and fast as he's ever been. It's going to be exciting to watch."

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Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

To get ready for the workload and pounding that comes with being the No. 1 running back and offensive focal point, Foster has placed a premium on preparation.

"I'm taking care of my body more. Eating right, sleeping right, and living right," said Foster. That's all I can control. That's where I matured a lot, knowing how my body works. It's more of a workload they are putting on me. It's just taking each play one at a time. I don't like to think so far down the road. I just think of each play at a time, and do what I can each play."

That focus has helped bring the physical elements of his game in line with the mental.

"His football IQ is top notch, and he's a guy that likes to be utilized in a number of ways, and he handles it very well," Norvell said. "He's getting to the point where he's coming to practice every single day and really trying to push himself."

Norvell's offensive system, with its focus on creating opportunities in space, is tailor-made for a player like Foster.

"It gives me all the flexibility in the world," Norvell said. "I go into a game plan just trying to make sure I get him in a one-on-one matchup. This year as a primary back, it's going to add to those touches, but I'm not going to lose what we've done to split him out and do things like that, because he's a dynamic player."

"He's a guy that can do it all," said Bo Graham. "He's extremely versatile. He still surprises me. He's put on body weight and can still move.  In our offense, we can do a lot of things with it in being able to expand his role. Coach Norvell and our offensive staff, that's always on our mind. Just trying to get our best athletes out in space. When it comes to D.J., you line him up anywhere and do anything with him. You need to be real creative."

"I'm definitely excited to watch D.J. this year in that system and how much they're going to find space and get some openings for him," Plummer said. "He's going to be a really valuable piece to stretch a lot of defenses."

"It's a blast, but you have to work for it," Foster said of his role in the ASU offense. "You have to be in top shape. We run a tempo offense and you have no time to be out of shape. You have to work hard, but once you get to that point, it's a blast. How many spots and positions that they can move you in, we attack from all angles."

Foster's abilities are something for which his quarterback is grateful, as it makes his job a lot easier.

"I just have to throw a little screen pass to him and have him take it 60," said Kelly. "With his knowledge of protections, and his athletic ability is unreal. He's put on some weight, so he'll be able to take those hits and be a very dynamic back for us."

On the flip side, blocking for a player as elusive and dynamic as Foster can be challenging, yet rewarding.

"D.J. is a dynamic player. I think he's one of the most explosive backs in the league," said offensive tackle Jamil Douglas. "Things happen so much quicker with D.J. because he's going to get the ball and bomb it in the A-gap or B-gap. As an offensive line, that makes our job better. We have to go now. We have to attack now. That's what our focus was this summer, to be more explosive and get guys like D.J. into the best position to make a play."

Only halfway through his eligibility, Foster has accomplished more than most young men who have laced up their cleats in the history of college football. He's recognized as an explosive playmaker, and a key cornerstone to the Sun Devil program.

Yet, he doesn't yet feel that he has arrived.

"To be honest, I still don't think I have," Foster said. "I still don't think I have proven enough. I've done stuff here and there, but I think this is the year for me to prove that I am a running back that can run the ball. I can still go out and play receiver. This is the year that I feel, I wouldn't say ‘the guy', but this is my role to be in. I feel like this is the year that I really need to step up."

Watch out, Pac-12.

*   *   *   *   *

So how good can Foster be in 2014? That's a question that 12 defensive coordinators around the country don't want to ponder, but are about to find out.

"I SURPRISE MYSELF SOMETIMES."

"I think he's going to be one of the most dynamic players in college football," Norvell said. "I think he can be one of the most dynamic players at the next level for the different things that he can do. His toughness and his physicality, I'm not going to put any limitations on him."

Such is the belief in Foster's potential that his head coach has begun to use the "H" word.

"We want to have the first Heisman Trophy winner (in ASU history)," said Todd Graham. "Obviously that's one of D.J.'s goals. We're going to work hard to see that happen."

"It's an honor that he feels that I have that capability," said Foster. "Deep back in my head, I believe I have that capability. I've never been the kind of guy to set goals."

Norvell also agrees that the pieces are in place for Foster to make a run at that elite level.

"We're never going to put any limitations on No. 8," Norvell said. "He does a lot of tremendous things. He's one of the toughest players I've ever been around, and that makes him special at a skill position."

Foster himself has no idea how good he can ultimately be.

"I can never answer that. I surprise myself sometimes," Foster said. "I take it day by day."

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Christian Petersen - Getty Images

Beyond 2014, it seems that any projection of Foster's career path seems to invariably include an NFL future and the phrase "the sky is the limit."

"He's an extremely well-polished wide receiver. He's an extremely well-polished running back," Bo Graham said. "It just depends what teams are looking at him, and what role they want him to take on. The sky is the limit."

"I think D.J. Foster is going to have a career in the NFL," Sanders said. "They can utilize him as a slot guy. The NFL doesn't value running backs as much anymore. D.J. is going to have a tremendous year. Mike Norvell asked me ‘Can he run the read option from a quarterback position?' I said ‘Sure, I have tape. Let me show you.' We did everything you can think of with D.J. on offense. He was a lockdown corner on defense. The sky is the limit for that kid."

"He's a top-round NFL caliber player," said Caldwell. "He's the kind of guy you can play on offense and special teams in the NFL. He can play a slot role. We're going to learn this year that he can be an every down running back. The sky is the limit."

One would think that Foster, like most any boy who grew up a fan of the sport, has dreamed of a career in the NFL for a long time. That's not the case.

"I was never one of those kids. I loved sports since the day I could walk, but it was only in high school that I thought that it was an opportunity that I can have," Foster said of the NFL. "I don't think about it too much, because I've seen guys that think about it too much, and they lose focus on what the task at hand is. That's someplace I would love to be, and it would be a great blessing to be there."

As to when his NFL future could start, Foster has not closed the door on leaving ASU early to enter the 2015 draft, but neither has he given it any thought.

"I have no clue. I really don't," said Foster said of leaving early. "People have asked me that a lot, and I really have no answer for it. I'll have an answer that last game, hopefully it's the national championship. I'll probably have an answer right then and there. At this point in my life, I don't think about it whatsoever."

Foster's approach is the same one being advocated for by one of the most iconic Sun Devils in history.

"He can't worry about that. Right now, he's a Sun Devil," said Plummer, a second round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 1997. "What he's doing there is something he'll never have a chance to do again. The NFL is always going to be there for him, but he's got to stay focused on where he is at now. He's got a skillset that will definitely be very suitable to making it in the NFL. He might be the best route runner on the team. That's not just running back routes, that is seven cuts, and comebacks, and posts, and out routes. He's very skilled with his feet, and a very precise route runner.

"I think anytime a kid has that much talent and that much skill to do that many things, there's a place for him in the league."

*   *   *   *   *

Earlier that morning, before arriving at his announcement press conference, Foster's father sent him an old photo. In it, his sister Jennifer was wearing an ASU shirt. When the picture came in, any doubt of what he would say at the podium vanished.

"That picture obviously meant a lot to me," he said. "My sister in general means the world to me. In the morning, I thought about what was really important to me. I realized that I would do anything for my family. At the time, my mom lost something big in her life and our life as a family, and I wasn't ready to leave her. That was the main reason why I stayed home. To be close to my mom and family."

After he had announced to the world that he would be a Sun Devil, an immediate and visible sense of relief and happiness came across Foster's face.

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Steve Dykes - Getty Images

"I felt like I was making my family proud of me," Foster said. "I just knew how happy I'd be to have my mom and my dad come see me play, all my friends and family. To play for this community, it just made me proud and happy."

He had just reinvigorated a fanbase that had been dragged through the mud for the prior few months. After a devastating end to a season and a coaching regime, Foster had just given Sun Devil Nation, his hometown nation, hope when they needed it most.

Before the cameras turned off on that January day, Foster had one last thing to say to the world.

"Go Devils. I'm ready to work. Let's get Rose Bowl championships."

*   *   *   *   *

Two years later, Foster is still chasing that goal, one that only a single Sun Devil team has ever accomplished. While he feels that he can be happy with individual honors and accomplishments, he says that without a Rose Bowl title, his ASU career will be incomplete.

"The most important goals are what we have as a team," said Foster. "That really is something that many people do not get to experience. That is something that I think about every day, and my teammates do as well, experiencing that Rose Bowl and playing for a championship."

Other than bringing home a championship, Foster's secondary goal, the one that he says will define success in 2014, has nothing to do with him, with yards, or with touchdowns.

"Seeing my teammates and especially the seniors happy," said Foster. "TK, Jamil, all these guys, seeing them happy, and having a successful season. Knowing that they left it all out on the field, and knowing that they know I did as well for them. That's a huge thing. Seeing these seniors that I've put a lot of work in with go out with a lot of wins."

His goals are lofty and unselfish. He may reach them all, or he may reach none. But at the end of the day, nothing can change the experience and value of living the Sun Devil Way.

"The lessons, and so many things that I've learned over these last two years, just for me as a man. Coach Graham has taught me so much," Foster said. "My teammates have too. They have taught me so much, the guys that have come and gone. How strong and powerful this community is. When this community is at full force and when this team is at full force, it's a dangerous thing.

"With how much support this community and Sun Devil fans have given me, I'm truly honored and blessed. It means a lot to me."

*   *   *   *   *

Foster and I are sitting outside of the Kajikawa facility following an early fall camp practice. To finish up our talk, I ask him what he'd like ASU fans 10 or 20 years from now to remember him as.

He ponders it for a few moments. I expect I may hear "Rose Bowl champion", "winner", or something in line with his humble nature like "good player".

"A good person," he said. "Football will take care of itself. Being a good person and a good teammate, that's what I want to be known for."

Mission accomplished. Now about those Roses...