When Arizona State honored its seniors prior to the Territorial Cup showdown with rival Arizona on Nov. 21 at Sun Devil Stadium, nobody received a louder ovation from fans than D.J. Foster.
It wasn’t even close.
Not more than 50 yards away from where an emotional Foster embraced ASU coach Todd Graham and posed for photographs with his family, local high profile recruits N'Keal Harry, Chase Lucas and Byron Murphy sat in the first few rows of the stadium while on their official visit to the school, absorbing the significance of the moment.
ASU fans weren’t just celebrating the remarkable on-field accomplishments of Foster, one of five Division I players in history to rush and receiver for more than 2,000 yards in a career. They were acknowledging that Foster’s talent was home grown, and that he turned down a lot of other high profile colleges to be a Sun Devil.
The No. 104 overall prospect nationally in 2012, Foster signed to the Sun Devils in Graham’s first recruiting class at the school out of nearby Scottsdale Saguaro as the state’s all-time touchdown leader.
In signing with ASU over offers from Cal, Nebraska, Oregon, UCLA, USC and others, Foster bucked what was then a growing and worrisome trend, a reality that fans were aware of not only in 2012 when he did so, but three years later on Senior Day as well.
Foster was the only Top-10 recruit in Arizona’s 2012 class to sign with the Sun Devils. A year earlier, as the demise of the Dennis Erickson era neared its completion, ASU struck out with what was at the time considered to be the best class in state history.
Not only did ASU not earn a commitment from any of the record tying seven prospects rated at four stars or better by Scout, it didn’t land any of the Top-10 recruits in the state, an almost unfathomable reality that almost certainly is unduplicated in history.
A year earlier, ASU didn’t sign any of the state’s four prospects rated as four stars, either.
Whether he thought of it this way at the time or not, Foster essentially put his foot down and said, ‘enough is enough.’ He clearly wanted to start a new movement, one in which the state’s top players elect to stay home and play for the Sun Devils.
Even though Foster became a freshman All-American in his first season at ASU, his decision didn’t change the state’s recruiting landscape in ensuing years. Between 2013 and 2015, the Sun Devils signed just one of the 17 four star or better prospects coming out of the state’s high school ranks, again missing on seven such players in a single class, 2014.
It wasn’t always this way in Arizona. From 2002-2004, the Sun Devils signed five of the 12 four-star or better prospects in the state. But it was an easier time. Arizona’s football demographic hadn’t matured. There were fewer higher profile recruits and about half as many Division I prospects overall in each class then compared with a decade later, and big time national programs didn’t invest in the local marketplace.
As soon as that changed, ASU started struggling to get the best local talent to remain in state, with Erickson and his predecessor Dirk Koetter striking out the vast majority of the time. Foster’s decision aside, that trend continued unabated through Graham’s first four classes at ASU, even though his teams won 28 games in his first three seasons.
From 2003-2015 there were 62 high school prospects rated by Scout as four or five stars in Arizona, and the Sun Devils signed just six of them over that span, just under 10 percent.
What nationally prominent program signs just 10 percent of its home state’s top prospects? None.
Foster knows this. Graham knows it. ASU fans at some level know it too, and that’s what brings us back to N’Keal Harry, Chase Lucas and Byron Murphy sitting in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium watching Foster on his Senior Day, after several hours of build up during which time they were treated as local celebrities by fans in attendance.
The significance of that moment wasn’t lost on Foster, a player who tried to get his former high school teammate and five-star wide receiver Christian Kirk to choose ASU over Texas A&M last year to no avail.
This year, there’s another opportunity in the former of Murphy, another Saguaro star and the nation’s No. 111 overall prospect in the 2016 class. Harry and Lucas, Murphy’s close friends and cross-town stars at Chandler High School, have already committed to the Sun Devils. Both are four-star, Scout300 national recruits, with Harry the No. 114 overall prospect in the 2016 class and Lucas ranked No. 292 overall.
Murphy will make his announcement today at 12:15 at Saguaro High School, with ASU, Washington, USC and Texas A&M his finalists. If Murphy picks the Sun Devils -- with many believing he will -- it will be the first time in history that ASU has earned commitments from three Scout300 recruits in a single class from Arizona. It would also give ASU the same number of four-star commitments in 2016 as it has had in the last five classes combined.
A confluence of events has led ASU to this opportunity. It’s Graham’s success on the field in 20012-15; the work product of recruiters Mike Norvell, Chip Long and Chris Ball locally, all of whom have ironically now left to coach at Memphis; Foster’s success at ASU as a local former star prep player; a climate at Chandler and Saguaro high schools that is favorable, with coaches receptive of ASU’s efforts; the development of players who have been successful in college; several high NFL draft picks at the school in recent years; amenable recruits who see the prospects of remaining home differently than others; family situations that are better conducive for ASU's chances.
This isn’t a situation in which ASU has all of a sudden done a lot better recruiting locally. Graham’s staff has been hard at work for four years, chipping away at the rock even when there wasn’t much progress to show for it other than few cracks. Harry, Lucas and Murphy? That would be a big break. It would also add to the legacy of Foster, and likely be one of the things he’s proudest of.