Of all the things the Arizona State coaching staff might lose sleep over, the offensive backfield is probably last on the list. Between quarterback Taylor Kelly and running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, the Sun Devils are pretty set behind the line of scrimmage, and they’ve got depth to boot.
As solid as the situation may be, though, there’s still the matter of performing once the season arrives. Expectations are high for Kelly, Grice and Foster after all three had impressive 2012 seasons, and all three will be central to the offense’s success in 2013. Here’s a look at how things developed in the backfield during spring practice.
Taylor Kelly, quarterback
What a difference a year can make. Last spring, Kelly was ASU’s third-string quarterback. This spring, he was the starter, and an accomplished one after a stellar 2012 season.
But that narrative has been covered plenty, and there’s a new reality for Kelly and ASU.
No longer an unknown commodity, Kelly faces the challenged of living up to expectations instead of creating them as he did last season. He’s expected now to take the proverbial “next step.” But what is the next step for a quarterback who racked up 3,039 passing yards and 29 touchdowns while ranking ninth in the nation with a 159.88 pass efficiency? There were a few ideas this spring.
“It’s just continuing to be consistent,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell said. “He had some great games last year, some games where he was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. But (there were) about four or five games where maybe he didn’t play to the top of his ability. So it’s developing that consistency.”
The other big focus: interceptions, of which Kelly had nine last season.
“Coach Graham always brings up that we’re 8-0 when I don’t throw a pick,” Kelly said. “So if I limit that, just take what the defense gives me and protect the football, we’ll be in good shape.”
How those two emphases develop won’t truly be seen until the season is underway, but the latter was at least somewhat visible in spring practice and seems a work in progress. Kelly threw plenty of interceptions during 11-on-11 drills, but there are two things to keep in mind: A quarterback can take risks in practice he might not in a game, and most of Kelly’s likely primary targets aren’t even on the field yet.
The lack of skill at wide receiver was apparent this spring, and ASU is counting on a highly touted group of receivers in the 2013 recruiting class to provide Kelly with more stable targets come fall. Even with veterans Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross last season, receivers were probably somewhat at fault for at least a few of Kelly’s interceptions.
Where Kelly’s ongoing development could be seen clearly this spring: leadership. The redshirt junior took on even greater leadership of the offense this spring, and coach Todd Graham noticed.
“That’s his offense,” Graham declared after an early spring practice.
Presumably, Kelly has greater confidence now than ever and should benefit from that as he deals with heightened expectations and the continued pressure created by hungry backups Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Quarterback: Taylor Kelly, Mike Bercovici OR Michael Eubank Tailback: Marion Grice OR D.J. Foster, Deantre Lewis, Terrell Davis
HELP ON THE WAY
Graham’s second recruiting class did not include a running back or quarterback. Accordingly, both are already top priorities in recruiting next year’s class. ASU had expected to land top quarterback Joshua Dobbs, but he changed his commitment late in the process when Tennessee swooped in and won him over. That leaves the Sun Devils with three scholarship quarterbacks, which is fine for now, but if a player were to transfer or a starter were to get injured, ASU would be in a precarious situation.
As far as position battles go, ASU’s offensive backfield was pretty uninteresting this spring. There was more development going on than anything, and a handful of interesting things did emerge.
After redshirting last season, Bercovici had a strong spring and has apparently lost weight to be more mobile, making him a better fit in the ASU offense. Graham commented a number of times through the spring how impressed he was with Bercovici, including after the spring game, when Bercovici threw for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Bercovici may have done enough this spring to leapfrog Eubank on the depth chart in the fall, though that idea is complicated by the way ASU likes to use Eubank in particular packages. Either way, it’s still hard to figure how Bercovici will get on the field this season, but his strong spring is at least a little assurance about the solid depth ASU has long believed it has.
In one of three coaching changes, Bo Graham (Todd Graham’s oldest son) took over running back duties after spending last season as on-campus recruiting coordinator. He was Tulsa’s running backs coach in 2007 and 2008, both seasons in which Tulsa led the nation in total offense. In 2008, Tulsa ranked fifth nationally in rushing offense.
Grice looked as good as expected, and if all goes right, he may have one of the best seasons of any running back in the Pac-12 this year. With the way he came on late last season, coaches are practically salivating at the potential of Grice playing a whole season at that level.
“Marion is a catalyst for us,” Todd Graham said. “He’s very, very critical. Any time he breaks the line of scrimmage he can take it to the house. And he’s working now at a different level than he was before.”
Foster didn’t take a lot of reps this spring as he dealt with a pair of minor injuries, but those are already mostly cleared up and shouldn’t be issues by the time fall camp arrives. He also is likely to see a good deal of time as a wide receiver this year, as he did last season.
Perhaps the biggest development at running back this spring was the apparent re-emergence of Deantre Lewis, who has not regained the impressive form of his freshman season after being shot in the leg and missing the entire 2011 season. Last year, he played sparingly and briefly moved to defense.
This spring, though, his name came up perhaps more than any other.
“Deantre has been working real hard to get back to 100 percent,” Bo Graham said. “He feels like he’s there. He’s at a point where he’s ready to get out here and establish himself and, again, take on a bigger role in the big picture of what we’re trying to do. I’m looking for him to come out here and show us what he’s capable of doing.”
It remains to be seen just how much ASU involves Lewis in the offense with Grice and Foster ahead of him. The same goes for redshirt freshman Terrell Davis, a big, physical back who got chances to impress this spring and could develop a role in short-yardage situations this year.
Running backs coach Bo Graham on working with Marion Grice and D.J. Foster: “It’s very exciting. Being able to work with those guys, obviously they came in first year, they were able to accomplish a lot of things in year one. They were learning as they go, and I think the future’s going to be even brighter. Let’s say maybe they reached Chapter 4 last year; we’re trying to get them to the end of the book.”