Byron Marshall and D.J. Foster Leading An Offensive Evolution

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Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Arizona State’s D.J. Foster both moved from running back to wide receiver, making way for bigger, workhorse ball-carriers. Don’t confuse either player’s reshuffling with demotion, however.

Byron Marshall and D.J. Foster could both have an All-America caliber 2015, as they take on roles that are the new wave in offensive evolution.

Before moving to receiver, Marshall and Foster led their respective teams in rushing yards. Marshall went for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, Foster racked up 1,081 yards and nine touchdowns last season. They’re proven commodities in the run game, but Royce Freeman and Demario Richard offer a power dimension that’s increasingly necessary for a top-level spread offense.

The move Foster made for Richard is a leap of faith, as Arizona State head coach Todd Graham explained.

“D.J. Foster sacrificed and trusted me when he didn’t have anything to go [on],” Graham said. “So that was pretty tremendous.”

Foster stood out as one of the Sun Devils’ most reliable pass-catchers before moving to receiver, hauling in 38 receptions as a freshman; 63 as a sophomore; and 62 in 2014, while doubling as the team’s leading rusher. Add it all up and Foster was the nation’s leader in yards from scrimmage last fall.

Sun Devil quarterback Mike Bercovici described Foster as someone who “can really take one-yard passes 99 yards.”

With Richard and bruiser Kalen Ballage on the roster, and star wide-out Jaelen Strong gone, turning up the emphasis on Foster’s pass-catching is only logical. But offensive coordinator Mike Norvell can (and probably will) line Foster up as a back to mix things up and keep defenses off-balance.

Like Foster’s switch, Byron Marshall’s was the result of Oregon featuring a wealth of talent at running back, but facing uncertainty at wide receiver. Josh Huff’s eligibility elapsed after the 2013 season, and top returning target Bralon Addison suffered an offseason knee injury that sidelined him for the duration of the 2014 campaign.

Marshall was much less of a proven weapon as a receiver than Foster, having caught just 13 passes out of the backfield in 2013. However, he made head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost look like geniuses with his production in a new capacity.

Oregon’s wide receiving corps went from unproven entity to decided strength over the course of the campaign, with Byron Marshall leading the way.

“They developed into a really good unit for us,” Helfrich said. “Obviously…Byron Marshall did a fantastic job moving around.”

And how. Marshall accomplished a remarkable feat when he surpassed 1,000 yards receiving. Hitting that milestone as both a ball-carrier and pass-catcher is landmark.

The Ducks are in something of a reversed role from a year ago. Addison is back, while youngsters Darren Carrington and Devon Allen emerged as top-notch receivers. Oregon’s lineup of potential pass-catchers run the full gamut of skills with tight end Pharaoh Brown returning.

Conversely, Freeman returns at running back, but Thomas Tyner’s absence due to shoulder surgery brings some uncertainty to the backfield. Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James will both jockey for opportunities behind Freeman, but if neither steps up as a reliable No. 2 option, Frost will have the option of giving Marshall more carries.

Last season, he packed a punch in 52 opportunities, averaging just over 7.5 YPC with one touchdown.

In Byron Marshall, Oregon might have the nation’s most intriguing Heisman dark horse. He’s flying further below the radar than former teammate De’Anthony Thomas did two seasons ago, but the possibilities for Marshall in the Ducks scheme are similar.

Marshall won’t approach Thomas’ touchdowns-to-touches ratio, which was 1-to-6.73 for his career, but that’s because Marshall will be entrusted with more responsibility between the 20-yard lines. It’s not outlandish to suggest Byron Marshall could reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

Marshall and Foster are prototypes for a new style of player, but they aren’t the Pac-12’s only examples of the “receiver back” position. And the role isn’t limited simply to the uptempo, spread style, either.

No one will ever confuse Stanford’s offense with that of Arizona State or Oregon, but Cardinal head coach David Shaw plans a strategy with sophomore Christian McCaffrey similar to how Oregon and Arizona State use Marshall and Foster.

“He’ll do everything,” Shaw said definitively, when I asked if the converted running back will still lineup in the slot.

It’s an exercise in getting the best players the ball, by any means necessary. And I suspect we’ll see a lot more of it around college football in the seasons to come.