ASU boasts quality, quantity at running back

TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time Bo Graham coached running backs, at Tulsa in 2008, his unit finished fifth in the nation in rushing offense. Now in the same position at Arizona State, Graham wants even more.

“We’re trying to get to No. 1,” said Graham, 30, eldest son of head coach Todd Graham. “We want to be the best on all sides of the ball, all three phases, but offensively we definitely want to set our goals up top, and we feel like we’ve got the personnel and the people to do it.”

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, considering that Graham inherits a deep running back corps highlighted by returning standouts Marion Grice and D.J. Foster.

The options also include Deantre Lewis, finally getting healthy after being wounded in a random shooting two years ago, and emerging redshirt freshman Terrell Davis.

Ranking first nationally in rushing might be a bit of a stretch, but after finishing at No. 25 in 2012, it seems likely the Sun Devils can move up in year two of Todd Graham’s “high octane” offense. Better production from the wide receiving unit will help, as Foster and Grice won’t have to double as the team’s best downfield targets.

Grice appears capable of an every greater leap after coming on strong over the last few games of the 2012 season, including a three-touchdown performance in ASU’s win over Arizona. Between rushing and receiving, Grice finished 2012 with one touchdown per 7.5 touches, which ranked best in the Pac-12, ahead of Oregon running backs De’Anthony Thomas (8.5) and Kenjon Barner (12.9), USC receiver Marqise Lee (9.3) and UA running back Ka’Deem Carey (14.1).

Todd Graham has particularly high expectations for Grice in his second year out of junior college.
“I ask him every day after practice ‘Did you practice today like the Heisman Trophy Winner?’ and he tells me yes or no,” Graham said. “He’s had quite a few practices (this spring) where he’s said yes, so I feel good about that.”

Grice (684 rushing yards, 425 receiving, 19 combined touchdowns) figures to split carries with Foster, a freshman All-American who also stands to take the next step. Foster (518 rushing, 533 receiving, six TDs) has bulked up since the end of last season, gaining more than 20 pounds. He hopes to play the 2013 season around 200 pounds.

The added weight should help Foster sustain more hard hits like he took last season. He’s also likely to see plenty of time as a slot receiver.

“It’s very exciting,” Bo Graham said. “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 four last year, we’re trying to get them to the end of the book.”

While Foster and Grice look to continue getting better, Lewis will try to get back on track. A big-play threat as a freshman in 2010, he missed the entire 2011 season recovering from a leg injury suffered in the shooting, then battled through a frustrating 2012 season. Buried behind Foster, Grice and senior Cameron Marshall, he carried the ball just 11 times. He switched briefly to defensive back but abandoned the experiment.

Lewis and his coaches said he had completely recovered his health, but he didn’t look like the explosive back that registered 539 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in 2010.  The consensus now is that he’s getting back there.

“Deantre has been working real hard to get back to 100 percent,” Bo Graham said. “He’s at a point where he’s ready to get out here and establish himself and take on a bigger role in the big picture of what we’re trying to do.”

It might be hard for Lewis to get significant carries behind Foster and Grice, but if he makes enough big plays when he gets the chance it will force ASU to keep getting the ball in his hands.

Davis provides another dimension to ASU’s ground attack. At 230 pounds, he should take on Marshall’s role as ASU’s power back, key in short-yardage situations.

“Terrell’s that big back that we need,” Todd Graham said. “We need that guy that has a frame like Cam had and can get down in there and punch that ball in, so I see him having a role and a guy that’s got to continue to get better.”

Davis gained about 15 pounds over the winter.

“I just wanted to get bigger, stronger, faster,” Davis said. “I am a bigger guy, so probably a power running game is my go-to thing, but I feel like I can catch balls in the backfield as well.”

A crowded backfield can lead to frustration, as Marshall undoubtedly felt in his reduced role last season, but it also promotes competition, something Graham said he seeks at every position.

“We have to push ourselves and we need to bring our ‘A’ game every day in practice to make each other better,” Grice said. “Everybody needs to be a balanced back, just not one thing, so it’s great to work with those guys.”

However the carries shake out, such depth at running back provides a nice safety net if injuries occur.

“It’s an exciting group,” Bo Graham said. “We’re polishing things up and getting the machine ready for next year.”