2014 Heisman Sleeper: Arizona State RB D.J. Foster

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Arizona State got an early preview of its offense without multidimensional running back Marion Grice. The outlook? The Sun Devils should be just fine with D.J. Foster in his role.

Tied for the university’s single-season touchdown record in the Sun Devils’ penultimate regular season contest, Grice suffered a lower leg injury that effectively ended his college career. Head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell were left to not only replace the team’s featured running back, but also one of its primary receivers.

Losing such an invaluable contributor to an offense is a devastating blow–particularly for a team competing for a conference championship, as Arizona State was in 2013. Grice is a particularly adept two-in-one player, the likes of which few teams have. Luckily for Graham, he had two.

Without Grice in the lineup, the former local prep standout D.J. Foster showed off the same skills that made him a 4-star recruit at Scottsdale Saguaro High for a much larger audience. In his first start as Arizona State’s featured back against rival Arizona, Foster went for 124 yards with two touchdowns, and two receptions for another 26 yards.

Not bad for someone who was playing another position much of the season. In his postgame press conference after the Arizona win, via TheSunDevils.com, Foster explained re-acclimating to playing running back after spending much of 2013 in the slot

It [was not] difficult at all, I felt at home, I felt good being back there. It was just getting my mindset out of the receiving stuff, and get myself into the playbook as a running back again. Everything else it felt good, it felt comfortable to get back.

Indeed, Foster’s effort that night provided a glimpse into the future of the Arizona State offense. Todd Graham recognized it:

D.J. Foster is a special tail back. To be able to go and do what he did tonight, it’s not surprising to me at all. He’s a big time player and a big time leader for us.

Foster was also decided bright spot a week later in the Sun Devils’ Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Stanford. He scored both of Arizona State’s touchdowns: one a rush of 51 yards, the other on a reception of 65 yards.

Foster is not easily compared to any one counterpart. At 5-foot-11 and just under 200 pounds, he’s not quite as big as former teammate Marion Grice, who goes 6-foot and 210 pounds. He played slot receiver for much of 2013, but his smooth transition into the backfield may draw comparisons to De’Anthony Thomas.

However, Foster is considerably bigger than Thomas, which makes him a reliable every-down option, something the former Oregon star wasn’t.

D.J. Foster is unique, and that’s an attribute that suits Norvell’s system just fine.

Under Norvell’s guidance, the Arizona State offense is a well-oiled machine that’s produced 38.4 and 39.7 points per game each of the last two seasons. It’s no wonder the Sun Devils’ version of the spread functions so fluidly; at the 2013 Pac-12 media day, Graham told me, “I’ve been a no-huddle coach since 1994.”

In 20 years to tinker with an offense, it’s bound to add new features. Arizona State’s no-huddle spread is a veritable Swiss Army Knife; Grice combining 197 carries for 996 yards and 14 touchdowns with 50 receptions for 438 yards and six touchdowns.

That style produces points in buckets, but it also distributes scoring opportunities among the team. Running backs are at a considerable disadvantage with today’s Heisman voters, who have more or less rendered it a quarterback-exclusive award.

A running back generating Heisman buzz on a multifaceted team is no easy feat–look no further than Grice, whose Heisman attention was scarce prior to his injury, despite his leading a team in Rose Bowl contention.

Like Grice, Foster will share the spotlight with dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly. Kelly is drawing some preseason Heisman talk, coming off a season of 3,635 yards passing and 608 rushing.

Arizona State also returns Jaelen Strong, a receiver in the conversation as the Pac-12’s best. The trio should have a considerable portion of the Sun Devils’ touchdowns divvied up among them. For Foster to jump into the Heisman race, his total yardage output must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 yards.

Recent Heisman-finalist running backs from offense’s built similarly to Arizona State’s–Oregon’s LaMichael James in 2010 and Auburn’s Tre Mason in 2013–each eclipsed 1,900 total yards.

However, Mason and James did most of their damage on the ground, each carrying somewhere near 300 times. Foster is unlikely to see such a substantial workload via the rush, but his value as a pass-catcher could see him approach 60 catches once again.

A season with 1,300 rushing yards and 500-600 receiving yards isn’t unattainable. Should D.J. Foster hit those numbers and Arizona State again find itself in Pac-12 contention, Heisman buzz should follow.