It's amazing what a productive offseason can do for a player.
At the midway point of the season, Arizona State senior running back Marion Grice is reaping the benefits of one.
However, it's not as though Grice had a bad year last year. Coming out of Blinn Community College in Brenham, Texas, rated as the No. 5 overall junior college prospect and a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, Grice ended 2012 season leading the Sun Devils in all-purpose yardage with 1,104 yards with 679 via the ground and 425 through the air.
So far this season, despite only rushing for 395 yards this year for averages of 65.8 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, Grice has amassed 10 rushing touchdowns, tied for first in the nation and one short of his total last year which was 11. He also has 29 receptions for 295 yards and five touchdowns, three short of reaching his total last year of eight.
With 15.0 points per game, Grice is leading the nation in scoring.
"This year was set up a lot by my summer workouts," Grice said. "It really prepared me for this year because I feel a lot stronger, faster and more physical. I feel like this year has been good and will get better. I have to finish it off well. I just need to continue working hard in practice so I can continue being as productive as I have been."
Nine of the 10 touchdowns that Grice has rushed for and four out of the five receiving touchdowns come inside the 20 yard line, which has contributed to ASU's 88 percent success rate in the red zone, which is tied for No. 36 in the nation.
While coaches and fans expected big things from the 6-foot-0, 207 pound running back this year, the scoring efficiency that Grice has been playing with couldn't have been predicted.
"He's really good," ASU head coach Todd Graham said. "He's a special back, he has something. Scouts always ask me, 'Coach, who does he remind you of?' He doesn't remind me of anybody. He just has this thing and it's not anything like, it's not flashy, it just always happens. You know what I'm saying? He always scores. That's the only thing I say of course to (offensive coordinator Mike) Norvell when we get down to the red zone. 'Get anything to [No. 1]? Get anything to [No. 1] yet? Why don't we give it to [No. 1] here?' No, but he's really good and I think he's an exceptional player."
Running backs coach Bo Graham said there are two primary factors that have resulted in Grice positioning himself as he has this season.
"Physically he's put himself through a real one year offseason," Bo Graham said. "He's able to go more plays in a row, push the tempo and handle all of it a lot better which is why he's getting so many reps. From a mental standpoint he knows what he's doing a whole lot better and knows the offense a whole lot better than he did last year."
As football is a mental game just as much as it is a physical one, being able to read defenses and adapt accordingly is something that doesn't only apply to quarterbacks. As such, being a more cerebral player has played a major impact on the way Grice operates on the football field this year.
"I think all the guys have some misreads from time to time but we really emphasize being disciplined on our track, doing our job and trying to get the ball up on the safety," Bo Graham said. "We usually don't block those third level guys so I tell them, 'Hey, we're going to get you up there to that guy and he's yours so you have to make him miss.' He's done a great job with that. I think the really great backs can see third level and set those guys up, kind of like he did with the safety last week with making a good move there and making him miss. Just having a plan for it once you get there and anticipating that, that's what he does an excellent job at and that's what separates him from some other guys."
This increased production from Grice has resulted in him getting the majority of carries on drives, even with capable options like sophomore running back D.J. Foster and junior running back Deantre Lewis in the fold. With only a total of 103 carries last year, Grice is on pace to quickly break that mark, and maybe even do so this week against Washington, as he currently has 90.
While some fans may be worried that the increased lead may wear down on the senior running back, coaches don't seem too concerned and say they are managing it.
"I think it's a week-to-week thing," Bo Graham said. "What our offense prides ourselves in, we're going to take what the defense gives us. If you watch film from last year, you didn't see (sophomore receiver) Jaelen Strong and some of those other guys on the perimeter. So if you're coming in here trying to defend us you're going to have a big emphasis on the box and really trying to take away our backfield. We've gained some respect on the perimeter so naturally it's opened some things run lane wise. So depending on how people decide to match us up dictates who gets the carries. Last week we got more run plays so we were able to feed the ball to everyone. In previous weeks they've done a good job of stacking up the box so we've had to throw the ball which obviously results in less carries."
On the other side of things, there is always room for improvement and aside from the game against Colorado, Grice along with other running backs haven't quite lived up to expectation with blocking which was one of the major focuses heading into the season.
"Up until last week I wasn't too happy a lot of times with our protection," Bo Graham said. "I thought we were soft and thought we avoided contact a lot at times. We really challenged the group last week to establish ourselves as more physical protectors. We went out there with the intent and looking for it, looking to be physical. I think that mentality has changed and hopefully that will carry over into the next few weeks because that will be big for us."
Ultimately, even with certain things to work on, Grice has seen the improvement and balancing in his overall game and said that if there ever was something he wanted to work on this year, it was that.
"I never really set any goals for myself, I just want to help the team," Grice said. "I mean, I like the fact that I have more rushing touchdowns than last year. Last year was more of a reception touchdown type of year but this year I've shown everyone that I can pretty much run the ball, be very physical and get a lot of rushing touchdowns."
True freshman safety Marcus Ball was in a green non-contact jersey today, but Graham said Tuesday that he expects him to play in the next week or two. He could get a look at Spur instead of the field safety position he was at before getting hurt in camp.
Redshirt freshman Viliami Moeakiola worked at Spur linebacker for the first time in his career Tuesday in practice. The Sun Devils are looking for additional options at depth at the position and the emergence of junior Damarious Randall at field safety enabled Moeakiola getting a look at a different position.
During the defensive install period sophomore Antonio Longino backed up freshman Salamo Fiso at the SAM linebacker over senior Steffon Martin. The was most likely to expedite Longino's understanding of defensive schemes as Martin was later at second-team SAM during tempo period observed by media.