ASU season preview: Offensive backfield

TEMPE, Ariz. — If anything has allowed Arizona State coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell to get any more sleep this fall camp than they did a year ago, it has to be the lack of a quarterback competition.

“That’s a big deal,” Graham said. “It’s very settling to know you’ve got a guy that’s very, very dependable and very solid.”

Norvell and Graham have undoubtedly concerned themselves with new offensive worries, but either way, ASU’s offense enters the season set in the backfield with a returning quarterback and a pair of proven playmaking running backs.

In junior signal-caller Taylor Kelly and running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, the Sun Devils have one of the most potent backfields in the Pac-12, perhaps rivaled only by Oregon.

With the 2013 season a little more than a week away, here’s a look at what to expect from ASU’s offensive backfield:

Starters

QB Taylor Kelly, RB Marion Grice/D.J. Foster

Camp standout

Sophomore D.J. Foster didn’t exactly come to fall camp as an unknown considering his stellar freshman season, which earned him freshman All-America honors from FOX Sports Next. But somehow Foster has found a way to wow coaches all over again this fall.

“D.J. has definitely shown the most signs of improvement, just from an explosive standpoint,” running backs coach Bo Graham said. “He’s put on the weight, but I think he’s moving a lot better.”

Foster put on about 20 pounds in ASU’s summer strength and conditioning program yet still managed to get faster. More speed coupled with more durability ought to equal big things for ASU and more headaches for opponents.

With Grice’s further emergence late last season, Foster appears likely to see more action as a receiver than a running back. But whatever his role, Foster seems certain to be an even bigger difference maker in ASU’s offense this season.

Outlook

Sure, they have their challenges, but in the end Norvell and Bo Graham might have it easier than any other position coaches this fall.

Norvell, also the quarterbacks coach, came to camp with Kelly looking to take the next step and a pair of capable backups (Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici) champing at the bit for an opportunity. Graham, in his first season as ASU’s running backs coach, has two of the Pac-12’s top backs in Foster and Grice, along with capable reserves in redshirt junior Deantre Lewis and senior Kyle Middlebrooks.

“I feel good about our depth,” Graham said. “Everyone is improved overall, and I’m expecting bigtime production out of all three or four of them.”

Graham said he expects Grice to rush for at least 1,000 yards. Foster will likely tally a smaller total as he doubles as a receiver, utilizing the dynamic nature that landed him on the Paul Hornung Award watch list for college football’s most versatile player.

“I think both of those guys are a lot better than they were last year,” Graham said.

Grice finished the 2012 season with back-to-back games of more than 150 rushing yards. Coaches believe he has only scratched the surface of his potential, and after his first offseason in the weight room, Grice has transformed physically.

“I feel a big difference,” Grice said. “I feel a lot stronger and everything, a lot faster. I feel much better about myself this year.”

Also looking to take another big step is Kelly, a surprise winner in last season’s quarterback competition after running third out of spring practice. Kelly set a school record for completion percentage and fell one touchdown shy of tying the single-season touchdowns record. It will be a hard act to top, but Kelly believes he can do it.

“I’ve just got to come to work every day with a championship mindset,” Kelly said. “I’ve got to push the other 10 guys on my offense around me, push them to the very best of their ability. If I do that, the sky’s the limit for us.”

If leadership is the key to the proverbial next step, Kelly has already taken it, as the term “my offense” ought to show. But despite his success, Kelly knows he can’t get complacent. Bercovici and Eubank are itching for an opportunity behind him.

All told, ASU might have the deepest quarterback group in the Pac-12.

“We have three guys that can definitely win football games for us,” Norvell said. “And they’ve all improved. That’s something that’s been key for me, that I see that growth in them, and they’re getting better each and every day.”

Whether Kelly can post better numbers this year remains to be seen, but with a new pool of talented receivers in place it seems likely.
One to watch

Eubank saw significant action in specific packages early last season but saw his playing time decrease the more ASU realized what it had in Kelly. How his reps play out in the early going of the 2013 season will be worth watching.

While Bercovici is the apparent No. 2 quarterback, both Norvell and Todd Graham have said the super-athletic Eubank will again be used in certain offensive packages. Whether that will be enough for Eubank also merits following.

“I feel like I’ve earned a little more than situational package,” Eubank said. “I want to throw some touchdowns this year. I know I have running packages, but I’m also a quarterback, and I want to throw the ball.”

Coach’s take

“I think Taylor (Kelly) is faster and stronger. I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys behind him as well. I think they’re faster and stronger. Marion Grice is faster and stronger. D.J. Foster is faster and stronger. So we’ve really developed our personnel.” — head coach Todd Graham.

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