TEMPE, Ariz. – D.J. Foster smiled as the idea of facing Ka’Deem Carey saturated his thoughts.
Foster understands the implications of Friday’s Territorial Cup game for both programs. A win over Arizona on Friday in Tucson would give Arizona State some momentum heading into the offseason on a two-game winning streak, while stealing any steam the Wildcats built up with their first road win of the season last Saturday in Salt Lake City.
It would also give the Valley’s most promising running back recruit since the turn of the millennium a chance to measure himself against Tucson’s most promising running back recruit since the turn of the millennium.
But this is nothing new to Foster and Carey.
Huge rivalry game. Phoenix vs. Tucson. State bragging rights on the line. Yeah. Been there. Done that.
Foster and Carey squared off three times in high school, and those games felt every bit as big at the time, because Carey’s Tucson Canyon del Oro Dorados and Foster’s Scottsdale Saguaro Sabercats were the two reigning Class 4A-I powers.
In 2009 — Foster’s sophomore year and Carey’s junior year — CDO snapped Saguaro’s 37-game winning streak emphatically, routing the Sabercats 44-0 in Tucson while Carey ran for 299 yards and three touchdowns. CDO later captured the state championship while Saguaro fell in the semifinals to Tucson Sabino.
In 2010, Saguaro got revenge, snapping CDO’s 27-game winning streak and avenging an earlier season loss to the Dorados by beating them 41-34 in the state championship game at Sun Devil Stadium despite 173 yards and two touchdowns from Carey.
“I remember him making big plays, me making big plays,” Carey said. “It came down to a game-winning drive. They executed theirs. Ours felt like chaos.”
Foster didn’t become a featured running back until his senior season, when Carey had already graduated. He played defensive back much of the time during his junior campaign. That gave him a firsthand look at Carey’s eye-popping running ability.
“I’ll never forget how hard he was to tackle,” Foster said with eyes wide. “He’s agile, he’s got great vision and he moves side to side really well.”
Nobody could be certain if Carey’s talents would translate at the college level. Sierra Vista’s Jamal Womble, Sunnyside’s Xavier Smith and Peoria’s Terry Longbons were all highly recruited running backs out of Arizona, recently, but none really panned out at the college level.
Carey showed flashes in his freshman season, but he announced his arrival in style this year in Rich Rodriguez’s first season as coach. Carey ran for a Pac-12 single-game record 366 yards and scored five touchdowns when Arizona beat Colorado 56-31 on Nov. 10. After 204 more last week against Utah, he now leads the nation with 1,585 yards, and his 19 rushing TDs are third.
“Ka’Deem runs as hard and as angry as any running back in the country,” Rodriguez said after the game. “There were times where he may have missed a cut or two, but for the most part, his vision was really good with regards to how the play was unfolding. I think he can get better at that part, and he’s only a sophomore.”
Foster’s freshman campaign has the Tempe contingent dreaming of future possibilities as well. Foster is second on the team with 485 yards on 85 carries (a 5.2-yard average) with two rushing TDs. He also has 34 receptions for 484 yards and four more TDs.
Considering the Sun Devils’ immense depth at the running back position, including returning senior Cameron Marshall and highly touted junior-college transfer Marion Grice, those numbers are somewhat surprising.
“I never imagined that they were going to use me this much,” Foster said. “We’ve got a lot of good backs, and I still need to do a lot more to improve. I have to get a lot stronger, know the coverages, know the blitzes, be a better blocker, stuff I didn’t do a lot of in high school that I’ve definitely had to adapt to this year.”
Arizona State coach Todd Graham is confident he will.
“I watched him score 10 touchdowns in one game (during Foster’s senior year at Saguaro),” Graham said. “My first impression on film was, ‘Wow, this guy’s a special player.’
“The dynamics of his ability to run the ball and his ability to catch the ball are special. He’s not a very big guy, but he’s a really good inside runner. He’s a complete back. On film, I thought, ‘This is a guy we have to get.’”
When the Sun Devils and Wildcats line up on Friday at Arizona Stadium, all of this chatter will fade into the focus of competition. But the there will be a sizeable contingent from each player’s past that remembers, including former Saguaro coach John Sanders, who is now an ASU assistant, and CDO coach Dustin Peace, who hasn’t missed a single one of Carey’s games in attendance or on television.
There is also a growing contingent of newcomers — “bandwagoners” as Peace called them — creating the possibility that this rivalry could develop a special and electrifying angle, thanks to the efforts and abilities of two native sons.
“You’d better stop wearing your UA stuff around town,” Peace told Carey over a recent lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings. “Either that or you’d better hire some big security guys because everywhere you go now, people are going to want to talk to you.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter