TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s been asked this season, and the question seems fair: Is D.J. Foster a running back or a receiver? The simple answer is both, even if the depth chart says he’s a running back.
Foster and his Arizona State coaches believe the sophomore is most effective as a dual threat, at least right now, and continue to tinker with the right balance of using him in both roles.
“No question I think he’s a dynamic back,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. “He’s a tremendous tailback, but obviously he’s a great receiver, too. He really epitomizes the position of what we want to be able to do.”
In Norvell’s offense, ASU will always expect running backs to do both. This year, Foster has been used primarily as a receiver. With 36 receptions for 390 yards through seven games, he’s just two catches and 143 yards shy of his 2012 totals. But at the same time, he’s had fewer opportunties to carry the ball: 26 carries for 125 yards after carrying 102 times for 493 as a freshman.
Breakdown of D.J. Foster’s 2013 season through 7 games:
Part of Foster’s reduced touches out of the backfield is due to the further emergence of national scoring leader Marion Grice. The senior has been too effective to take the ball out of his hands. ASU also has worked junior running back Deantre Lewis more into the mix.
“I think the rotation is good,” Foster said. “The last couple games it’s gotten better with me and ‘D-Lew’ and Marion just rotating a little more. I think we realize that’s what we need to do, because we all do certain things well.”
In ASU’s 53-24 win over Washington, Foster got five carries for 25 yards to go with four receptions for 56 yards. His season high for carries this year came against USC when he rushed nine times for 50 yards.
In two games, Foster has gone without a carry, but in those he caught eight passes for 80 yards (vs. Stanford) and nine passes for 71 yards (vs. Notre Dame).
His lone touchdown this season came on a 74-yard catch against USC.
Foster said he feels more effective and comfortable as a receiver this season, and he may continue to see greater action in that role. Whichever way the balance swings in a given game, though, Foster makes an impact, and ASU will keep tinkering on a game-by-game basis.
“It’s just going to continue to grow with what he’s doing,” Norvell said. “It’s a great balance of what we’re doing with him and Marion and then getting Deantre in. All those opportunities are huge, and I think D.J. is one of the keys to the success we’ve been having this year just with the versatility of the things he does.”
Grice also is used in both roles, averaging 15.9 carries and 4.7 receptions per game. With Grice getting a heavier workload, Foster remains patient. He’s still the team’s third leader in all-purpose yards (531) and knows his turn as ASU’s featured back is likely to come next season.
“I can’t even worry about it,” Foster said. “My time, when it comes, it comes. When they call my number, I’ve just got to try to make a play. I’ve still got a lot of time here.”
Foster admits it’s an added challenge having to know the intricacies and terminology of both positions. It means more time studying film and learning plays.
Whether Foster is carrying the ball or catching it, he remains a significant cog in ASU’s offense, which ranks 12th nationally with 509.1 yards per game.
“D.J. has been extremely productive for us this year,” Norvell said. “We ask him to be a master of quite a few different things, but he embraces that. He studies his tail off, and I think that shows in his growth as a football player and his football IQ from last year to this year.”
— Foster did not participate in practice for the second straight day Wednesday, instead conditioning on the sidelines with a wrap on his left knee. The extent of the apparent injury is not known, but it does not appear serious.
— Wide receiver Jaelen Strong was also limited again after rolling his ankle against Washington.
— Reserve right tackle William McGehee was on crutches and wearing a walking boot on his right foot. His injury has not been specified. The sophomore has seen action in three games this season.
— Tight end De’Marieya Nelson got a few snaps as a pass rushing defensive end against Washington, and it appears likely he’ll get more. Nelson remained after practice Wednesday to work individually with defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.
— Todd Graham kept a promise to defensive lineman Davon Coleman, letting the senior switch his jersey number after a string of strong performances, which included a touchdown catch. Coleman now wears No. 7, which will likely force redshirt freshman linebacker Carlos Mendoza to switch his number as well.