(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
When Jaelen Strong declared for the NFL draft, Sun Devil football fans looked to Cameron Smith to be the number one guy in the air this year.
After Smith went down with a knee injury and was ruled out for the season in the beginning of spring practice, all eyes turned to running back-turned-receiver, DJ Foster.
Foster, who was second on the team in receiving last season with 688 yards, is leaving the backfield permanently to try and used his explosive playmaking ability to fill the void at the receiver position. The receiving corps lost a total of 123 receptions and 1,761 yards between Strong and Smith from last season.
“Losing a couple guys Cam Smith, Jaelen Strong,” Foster said. “We’ve all got to step up and do our part and just finish out and not let the receiving level drop off.”
Switching from running back to receiver after three seasons of spending a majority of the time in the backfield is like learning a whole new system, and Foster recognizes that in order to make this transition as smooth as possible he will have to be more mentally prepared than anything.
“Just trying to get that consistency and that just comes with time,” Foster said. “I’m enjoying it though. My coaches, Coach (DelVaughn) Alexander, Coach (Mike) Norvell, and a lot of the guys are helping me make that transition a lot easier. I’m just trying to be in the film room as much as I can and just be a student of the game.”
Although he may not be as polished fundamentally as the other receivers on the team are at this point, his most important asset is the one that will benefit this young group of receivers the most — his athleticism.
“(He brings) a lot of athleticism,” redshirt junior receiver Eric Lauderdale said. “We’re athletic depth-wise but he brings more explosiveness I would say.”
Foster’s athleticism could create potential mismatches out wide, and Lauderdale sees that as an opportunity for the other receivers to make their mark.
“He’s fast, he’s strong, quick off the jam,” Lauderdale said. “Defenders will be looking out for that so that’ll help the other receivers as well.”
While Foster’s speed may be his biggest advantage in his new position, he admits that he has been put to the test.
“I’m used to going up against 250 pound linebackers, now I’m going against 180 pound corners,” Foster said. “Lloyd (Carrington) is doing a hell of a job and it’s been a pleasure just to work with him every day and he’s getting me better, I’m trying to get him better just working on the outside.”
Foster’s presence has been felt early on in practice with the wideouts, but where one hole has been filled another has been slightly opened, that being in the backfield with the running backs.
Sophomores Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are expected to get most of the carries this season to replace Foster, and the senior has all the confidence in the world in the young tandem.
“I love watching our running backs,” Foster said. “I think Kalen Ballage stepped it up a lot this year; Demario (Richard) already showed what he can do. Kalen was a little inconsistent last year and that comes with being a freshman. But I think this spring he showed a lot of maturity and I think that he definitely stepped up a lot and he’s shown that he wants to be out there on the field.”
The running backs may be new, the receivers may be new, but what hasn’t changed is Foster’s experience and his leadership no matter where he is on the field.
“Having DJ Foster at the receiving spot now is different but he’s one of the leaders on the team so he helps everybody,” Lauderdale said. “Even though he’s learning still he helps everybody focus up more.”