CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. — The manner in which Arizona State running back Marion Grice finished the 2012 season left fans, coaches and teammates to wonder: Just how good can this guy be?
Grice, a junior college transfer from Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns in ASU’s final regular season game, a momentous win over rival Arizona. He then racked up 159 yards and two touchdowns in the Sun Devils’ romp over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
The games were Grice’s best performances all season and displayed potential that’s left fans and coaches all but drooling to see what’s next.
After his first summer in ASU’s strength and conditioning program, Grice has transformed physically, sparking greater intrigue and expectations for a player who barely expected to contribute during his first season of Division-I football.
“I don’t know what his ceiling is,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “But I know it’s pretty high.”
Grice arrived in Tempe just in time for fall camp last season. One of the highest-ranked junior college running backs in the nation, he had previously committed to Texas A&M but switched his commitment after A&M fired Mike Sherman.
He didn’t expect much of his first season.
“I thought I was going to come in and pretty much just learn, get in from time to time, but basically just learn the offense more,” Grice said. “I didn’t think I was going to be an impact player.”
Grice ended up being just that, compiling a team-high 679 rushing yards and 425 receiving yards on 41 catches. He combined for a team-best 19 touchdowns while sharing the load with fellow running back D.J. Foster, a local freshman standout.
But Grice was missing something. He wasn’t in the right physical condition to maximize his potential.
“I wasn’t being consistent, and I saw myself on film how slow I was moving compared to everyone else, how slow I was moving without the ball in my hands,” Grice said.
Regardless, Grice had a season good enough to earn him All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Now, he’s transformed himself into what could be an entirely different player.
“It’s completely different from a year ago,” running backs coach Bo Graham said. “I think he’s got an extra gear. I mean, he was fast last year, but he’s faster now.”
Graham said Grice’s physical transformation will be apparent in pass protection but might show up most in finishing runs, whether that means breaking an arm tackle or exploding into the open field. ASU has also been experimenting with ways to increase his role in the offense.
“You see we’ve got him at quarterback in the backfield some, lining up all over the place,” Graham said, referring to direct snap situations. “And from a production standpoint he’s getting the yards we’re looking for him to get.”
Grice feels the difference and believes increased production will follow.
“I feel a big difference,” Grice said. “I’m in shape and a lot stronger, so I feel pretty good about this season. I feel much better about myself.”
Grice is already contributing on a higher level as a leader, something that seemed unlikely when a soft-spoken, reserved player showed up in camp. That changed after tragedy struck.
On Dec. 21, 2012, eight days before ASU’s appearance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Grice’s brother, Joshua Wood, was fatally shot in an attempted robbery in their home town of Houston.
Grice left the team on Dec. 22. He returned to a family.
Grice received an outpouring of support from coaches and teammates he didn’t expect.
“It just showed me that they were there for me,” Grice said. “It basically just led me to have more trust in my teammates knowing that they’re going to be there.”
The experience compelled Grice to take on a leadership role. He has shed his reserved nature and accepted the added responsibility of guiding those around him.
“He’s had a year in the program, he’s gone through some adversity and leaned on this football team in those times,” Bo Graham said. “I think those relationships were built through going through those situations. The team was there for him in those times, and now that’s reciprocated.”
Grice’s teammates share the coaches’ belief in his ability to elevate his performance this fall.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” quarterback Taylor Kelly said. “He’s going to shock the nation again this year.”
And Grice? He just expects himself to be more consistent. He doesn’t consider how many yards he might rack up or how many times he might reach the end zone. But still, he knows ASU is counting on him, and he wants to deliver.
“They’ve got high expectations for me,” Grice said. “So I’ve got to set them higher and achieve them.”