Foster adjusting to receiver role

Heading into the 2013 season, many tabbed Arizona State as having one of the premiere running back combinations in all of college football with senior Marion Grice and sophomore D.J. Foster. But throughout the first five weeks of the season, one half of that tandem has often been aligning elsewhere on the field.

It's been more of a committee of one at running back for the Sun Devils as D.J. Foster has gradually eased into a new role at slot receiver, providing quarterback Taylor Kelly with yet another weapon in the passing game. Coming off a career-high nine receptions last weekend against Notre Dame, Foster continues to shine in his ever-expanding role.

When Foster committed to Arizona State following his senior season at Scottsdale's Saguaro High School, Sun Devil fans rejoiced and immediately expectations were set for the versatile and dynamic running back. As a freshman, he met nearly every one of those expectations, collecting more than 1,000 total yards of offense (493 yards rushing, 533 yards receiving) on his way towards being named a member of the Fox Sports NEXT Freshman All-American team.

With the departure of senior running back Cameron Marshall, most Sun Devil fans expected to see an increased role for Foster in the ASU backfield while playing alongside last season's leading rusher, Marion Grice, who totaled 679 yards on just 103 carries as a back-up. But so far, that hasn't been the case.

Through the team's first handful of contests, Foster has had just 15 carries for 82 yards. He had a season-high nine carries for 50 yards in a win over USC on September 28th, but did not register even one rush against both Stanford and Notre Dame, leaving the ball carrying responsibilities solely to Grice.

Foster though has enjoyed an equally surprisingly hot-start to the season at wide receiver, where Arizona State Offensive Coordinator Mike Norvell has lined him up in the slot position, adding another element to the Sun Devil passing attack.

In five games, Foster has hauled in 31 receptions - just seven fewer than he had all of last season - for a total of 329 yards (10.6 yards per catch).

"Every game I get more reps at receiver, so I'm getting more and more comfortable," said Foster on Wednesday after practice. "I played it when I was younger but it's definitely been a bit of an adjustment getting back into the rhythm of being a receiver again. I'm cool with it. When the time's right, they'll move me back (to running back) but Marion has been doing an amazing job so far.

"I still go back there when I can, you know, whenever Marion needs a break or something. But right now, with the game plans and everything, I'm just more in the slot."

For Arizona State (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12), the wide receiver position was a dire area of need following the 2012 season, where the leading wide receiver, Rashad Ross, had just 37 receptions on the year. The Sun Devils returned senior Chris Coyle, who set a school record for receptions by a tight end with 57 last season, and added a few new pieces, including junior college transfer Jaelen Strong, in hopes of improving its passing game.

Strong currently ranks ninth nationally in receptions per game (7.8) and 14th in total receiving yards (569), while Coyle is averaging a staggering 17.2 yards per catch with two touchdowns, helping spread the field for Foster and others to find their spots.

"For me, it's huge, and for this offense as well," Foster noted. "Having weapons like Jaelen and Chris is huge. Those guys really space out the defense so they can't just worry about the run game like they did last year. Now they have to respect about our outside wide receiver threats and it really opens up opportunities for some of our other playmakers on the field."

Arizona State currently ranks ninth nationally in passing offense (359.4) and 22nd in total offense (489.4), while averaging 42.2 points per contest. The addition of Foster and others have also benefitted second-year starter Taylor Kelly, who has passed for 300 or more yards in all five of the team's games this season, a feat he accomplished just three times in 2012.

"I trust him and I definitely think he trusts me more now as a receiver and stuff, just running the right routes and making the catch," remarked Foster. "We kind of play catch whenever we can and then just try to find each other whenever we're on the field."

Still, there are those who wonder if Foster is getting enough touches to maximize his playmaking ability in the team's quick-strike, high scoring offense. During his Monday afternoon press conference, Graham openly admitted that the team needs to find more ways to get both Foster and Grice more opportunities to make plays in order to avoid becoming too stagnant and predictable in certain situations, like the second half of last week's loss to Notre Dame.

"It's hard to say," said Foster when asked if he feels he's getting enough touches so far. "It's the game plan at the end of the day. We have so many weapons on this offense that it's hard to be selfish. When I see Jaelen running for 80 yards, it's just good to see. That's just the player that I am.

"I love seeing Marion and the other guys doing their thing. So when the ball does come to me, I just try to make something happen."

Last season, the Sun Devils averaged 205.5 rushing yards per game, the second highest output for an Arizona State team in the last 25 years. This year though, ASU has struggled to find consistency running the ball, averaging just 130 yards per game, which ranks 96th nationally.

"That's tough," responded the sophomore when asked what's been the cause for the drastic decline in production. "I just think it's what the defenses are giving us. With Coach Norvell, we all trust the play calls. He's doing a great job and Taylor's throwing the ball so well. A lot of our playmakers are outside too. Jaelen's playing so well. So I think we're definitely going to the passing game a lot more and when teams start to focus on that a bit more, our run game will come back.

"Going into Pac-12 play, I think we'll kind of get more in sync as an offense. I think we've done a great job so far but I think we'll kind of open it up a little more and establish the run game a lot more as well."

Having completed its non-conference schedule, the Sun Devils kickoff a seven-game stretch against conference opponents to close out the regular season, beginning this week when they play host to Colorado (2-2, 0-2). Arizona State is 4-0 all-time against the Buffalos, including last season's 51-17 route in Boulder where Foster tallied nine carries for 61 yards and six receptions for an additional 71 yards, including a diving 34 yard touchdown grab which helped ignite the Sun Devil offense in the second half.

"It was a fun game to play in," Foster recalled. "I definitely remember the catch that I had. It was kind of my first big play that I had in my career. I definitely remember that catch and just getting that win."

Colorado enters the weekend 121st nationally in pass defense, yielding an average of 326.8 yards per game, which should provide Foster and the rest of the Arizona State passing attack ample opportunities to display their offensive prowess as they continue their drive towards a potential division championship.

"They're definitely more disciplined this year," said Foster on the Buffalo defense. "They definitely have more of an edge to their defense and I can see the spark their players. We just have to play our game at the end of the day.

"We've got two home games in a row, so we definitely need to get those two before the bye week. Obviously Colorado is going to be a good game and then we've got Washington coming in here too. So we've just got to take care of these next two weeks, then re-group, get healthy, and keep going."

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