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ASU junior D.J. Foster learning to look and play the part of the every-down running back

TEMPE, Ariz. — There were no zigs or zags or passing routes downfield.

No, junior D.J. Foster spent the majority of Arizona State football’s first spring practice carrying the Sun Devil-embroidered pigskin high and tight from his permanent spot in the backfield.

Days of splitting time between taking handoffs and lining up as a receiver appear to be a thing of the past.

Such is the life for the program’s new starting tailback.

But the former Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro standout doesn’t have much interest in just being a starter. He’s aiming a bit higher.

“I always want to go for that Heisman,” Foster said Tuesday. “That’s always been a goal of mine and a dream of mine, so why stop now?”

There’s no doubt Foster has the physical tools to be mentioned in that rare air, however to do so he must first get acclimated with a role transition midway through his collegiate career.

While he’s undoubtedly ASU’s most dynamic offensive weapon, Foster has never been asked to handle the bulk of the load when it comes to carries. In fact, in two seasons, he has just 195 carries and eight rushing touchdowns.

Impressive numbers in a complementary role, but there’s no one to complement in 2014. With Marion Grice now trying to chase his NFL dreams, the versatile playmaker has to shift gears and become the Sun Devils’ every-down back.

It’s a role he’s still learning to embrace — both from a physical and vocal standpoint.

“I do enjoy it,” said Foster of being a leader on offense. “I accept it and am happy to do it. It’s definitely a challenge for me at times, but sometimes it’s better for me to get outside my comfort zone.”

And speaking of comfort zone, going up against physical Pac-12 defenses can be an uncomfortable task for any talented running back. Doing so while undersized, well, that’s a whole different ballgame.

The 5-foot-11 Foster got a taste of that brutal lifestyle late in 2013 when he filled in for an ailing Grice during the Sun Devils’ final three games. While he amassed over 300 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns, including an 80-yarder against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game, the 2011 Arizona Big Schools Player of the Year admitted that carrying the football snap after snap took its toll.

“I forget how much of a beating it is getting 20 carries a game,” said Foster, who suffered a left knee injury in the 38-14 loss to Stanford. “So I definitely remember what it felt like to take that punishment on the body. I’m making sure to take care of my body as a running back.”

To properly do so, Foster revealed that he’s worked
throughout the offseason with ASU head coach of strength performance Shawn Griswold to put on healthy weight. And already, the junior has bulked up to 208 pounds.

But according to his quarterback, Foster is not only looking the part these days, he’s slowly but surely learning to play the part full-time, as well.

“It’s great to get D.J. back there in the backfield with me,” Taylor Kelly said. “He’s an explosive player and is starting to learn the offense a lot better with protections and everything. He’s going to be great for us.”

Great might be the tip of the iceberg if Todd Graham has his way.

When asked about how Foster is adjusting to his role and what the potential ceiling is for a player who comes into the upcoming campaign with more receiving yards (1,186) than rushing yards (994) for his career, the ever-optimistic head coach didn’t temper any level of expectations.

“He and Taylor Kelly might be the most influential players on our football team,” Graham said. “I call D.J. up about 15 times a day. When we’re talking I tell him that he can be a great football player. He can be an All-American and not do everything that I am asking him to do.

“But if he does what I’m asking him to do, we can win it all. His teammates will follow whatever he does.”