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August 6, 2012
Crowded backfield good problem for Sun Devils
With a trio of untested quarterbacks competing for the starting job and a group of wide receivers almost as unproven, there's little doubt Arizona State will rely heavily on its running backs to carry the offensive load in 2012.
For a team that comes into this season with new faces at several key positions, the Sun Devils basically bring back everyone of importance to the running back position.
In fact, the player with the most rushing yards from last year who isn't on the team anymore is none other than former quarterback Brock Osweiler.
So while other parts of the team struggle to find consistent play at the No. 1 position on the depth chart, the problem for first-year offensive coordinator Mike Norvell won't be finding talent at the running back position, rather it will be how to effectively use the abundance of it.
The Sun Devils' rushing group will obviously be led by senior Cameron Marshall, who is coming off a 1,000 yard season. Behind him though is a take-your-pick deep line of talented backs eager to touch the ball in any way possible.
Junior college transfer Marion Grice leads the charge alongside prized freshman recruit D.J. Foster, sophomore Deantre Lewis and senior Kyle Middlebrooks.
Hired in March to help guide the stacked group of Sun Devils is running backs coach Larry Porter, formally the head coach at Memphis.
"We're mixing some veteran and young guys together," Porter said. "I think the chemistry is starting to come to light and that's the most important thing. They are embracing each other and they're working hard to building a very strong group with numbers."
Porter knows good backs when he sees them too. In previous coaching stops, most notably talent-rich LSU, he helped develop NFL guys like Tatum Bell, Jacob Hester and Joseph Addai.
When asked if this group has a chance to be one of the best he's coached in his career, Porter first acknowledged how early it is but then said, "Absolutely."
"We have so many different personalities and skill sets," he said. "So when you look at all that, I think all the guys bring something different. We are very versatile within our offense."
Even though the backs are undoubtedly one of the strongest parts of the team, they are still working to become more of a unit throughout fall camp. Marshall, Lewis and Middlebrooks all battled injuries that kept them out of at least part of spring practice while Foster and Grice are still in their first week of Division I practice.
And while Middlebrooks is the only one of the group not practicing at the moment as he recovers from shoulder surgery, the backs are finally mostly all together participating at the same time.
"The good thing is this is the first time I've had the opportunity to truly work with all these guys," Porter said. "It's refreshing to have them all in at once. We have to create an identity to be who we want to be going forward."
That identity, although still undetermined, will likely be the backbone of the Sun Devil offense. So even though the depth chart goes fairly deep, each player should get a chance to make their mark on the field.
"The way that we play, we're trying to average 80 or more plays per game, so there's not one guy in the backfield that's going to be able to handle that load alone," Porter said. "We're going to need those bodies to accomplish what we want to accomplish. We have to know what God gives us in every situation and then put the guys in situation to help us."
As the most seasoned returner, Marshall will be the back who will get the most opportunities in the traditional sense of the quarterback handing him the ball. His productivity in the past has made him one of the most looked up to players on the team.
"He's well respected and with that, it puts him in a position of leadership," Porter said. "He's a great ambassador for our group and our team. These guys lean on him. That's kind of nice when you have a guy like that."
As far as a specific number of touches Marshall will get per game, Porter wouldn't bite, but a fair number to expect would be 20 or so. That would leave quite a few more to spread around to the other position players.
"We're trying to play perfect football and not make any mistakes," Marshall said of his position. "The team wants to snap the ball fast, so we'll get a lot of touches to go around."
But even if the backs don't get the ball handed to them from the quarterback, they'll still play a large role in the offense. Guys like Foster and senior James Morrison will line up all over the field and play a part in the passing game.
Foster said he'll frequently be on the field in the slot in a formation with two backs in the backfield already.
"We have so many weapons, they can move us around and we'll still be helpful to the team," Foster said. "When they move me out in the slot, it's a good way for me to get touches. I'm comfortable at receiver."
Meanwhile Grice, listed by Rivals as the No. 5 overall junior college prospect in the country last year, will be used as a tough yardage guy up the middle. At 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Grice is a change of pace from the speed and finesse guys like Foster and Lewis.
"They say I'm a downhill runner and I like that they want me to run downhill instead of juking guys because that's my game," Grice said. "I'm more of a north and south guy, just be really fast in the hole."
To get everyone in shape for the newly installed offense that Todd Graham coined as "high octane," summer workouts were especially important for the backs.
"It's fast, it's a lot at first but I'm excited for it," Foster said. "When you go out there on the field, it's different than watching, but I'm definitely getting in shape."
The amount of depth ASU has with its running backs not only benefits the rest of the team but each individual tailback as well. The competition at practice, by all accounts, has helped each player get even better and that's a recipe for success everyone is excited about.
"With the backs that we've got, the coaches just say you can't take any day off," Grice said. "You have to come with your best effort every day or else someone else is going to be there doing it."
For the first time since camp started last week, Graham felt the offense got the best of the defense on Monday, aided by a turnover free session.
Redshirt freshman Michael Eubank earned first-team reps on the day and received praise from Graham afterward. True freshman offensive tackle Evan Goodman, a high profile acquisition, also received praise, as did junior receiver J.J. Holliday.
"He's got me going 'Who was that? Who was that?'" Graham said.
In a special teams period designed to see how well senior punter Josh Hubner could do at pinning the ball deep in the opponents territory, he excelled.
Hubner said he had nine of his twelve punts in the session land inside the 10 yard line with backspin, while another three landed inside the 10 and bounded into the end zone. None of his punts landed inside the end zone or outside the 10 yard line.