At the rate things are going, Arizona State probably won't have a 1,000-yard rusher this season. Yet the rushing offense is already well over 1,000 yards six games into the season. The Sun Devils probably won't have a 1,000-yard receiver, either. But running backs Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Cameron Marshall are on pace to crack the 1000-yard receiving mark between them.
ASU's talented trio is redefining what it means to be a running back at Arizona State. Gone is the one-dimensional runner who barrels full-steam ahead into the ample rears of 300-pound lineman. Running backs in the ASU scheme better have the hands to back up their legs.
"I thought I had an idea of what this offense was going to be like, but I didn't really know it was going to be like this," said true freshman running back Foster. "I love it."
Take Foster, for example, and the touchdown catch he had last week against Colorado. Lining up in the slot, he hauled in a 34-yard toss from quarterback Taylor Kelly over his shoulder -- while falling -- for the score. But he also got to carry it nine times for 61 yards. And Marshall carried 13 times for 98 yards and a touchdown. Twice Grice scored on screens, and a third time Kelly found him on a wheel route coming out of the backfield. In fact, Grice and Foster combined for 11 catches for 172 yards and four touchdown receptions.
ASU's offense takes some of the most athletic players on the roster and puts them in space to make plays. It's a simple enough concept, but one that doesn't always yield results. The Sun Devils, however, are making it work with terrific success.
"The thing about this offense is you want to be multiple and be diverse and get your playmakers in one-on-one situations -- regardless of whether it's a wide receiver or a running back," said offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, who has been with head coach Todd Graham for the past five seasons. "Looking at our group, we've got a great stable that can do a lot of different things."
Grice, Marshall and Foster have accounted for 19 of the team’s 30 offensive touchdowns. Grice with nine (five rushing, four receiving), Marshall with six (five rushing, one receiving) and Foster with four (two rushing, two receiving). As a trio, they average 5.3 yards per carry. The Sun Devils average 479 yards of offense per game and Grice, Marshall and Foster contribute 208 of those yards.
So far ASU's running backs have accounted for about one-third of the total receiving yards. Norvell said that's not necessarily by design, but he's happy with the result nonetheless.
"There's not really a set number," he said. "Part of my job is to make sure we're getting our best players in a position to make plays. When the opportunities come, they are making plays. I'm really pleased with the production they've been able to have in the passing game. They've all done a great job."
And they've made life a lot easier for Kelly, a first-year starter who has exploded onto the scene with his efficient play and spectacular operation of the offense.
"Oh yeah, it's nice because those guys all make it look easy," Kelly said. "All three of them are great. They can all run routes and get open on linebackers and catch the football. It's comforting for me knowing if I go to my check downs, they are going to catch it and usually get some extra yards."
Their biggest test of the year comes on Thursday night when ASU hosts No. 3 Oregon -- another team known for having an explosive offense and dynamic playmakers.
Tune in, says Graham.
"If you want to watch great running backs, this is a great game to come watch," Graham said. "I think six of the best running backs in America [will be] on the same field. That is how good the running backs are. What I like about our running backs is the diversity among them. Obviously, D.J. Foster is dynamic, inside outside catching the ball. Cameron Marshall is physical, just a downhill physical runner. Marion has got the speed and breakaway ability. So you have D.J. and Cam and Marion in the middle. The thing I like about all three of them is there toughness. When you take those six guys -- their three running backs and our three, there can't be guys much better than those guys."
Oregon has certainly set the standard for the way it uses its running backs in space. See Thomas, De'Anthony. While the Sun Devils haven't exactly duplicated Oregon's approach to using backs -- it's safe to say the ASU coaching staff believes it has the horses to produce similar numbers and similar success.
"That's something we take a great deal of pride in," Norvell said. "Part of our job as coaches is getting the best players matched up. When you can bring in guys like the group of backs we have, we have to do a service to this football team to get the best players matched up and put the best product out on the field."