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April 6, 2011The rash of spring football injuries in the Pac-12 conference spread to Arizona State last week when senior starting receiver T.J. Simpson and senior starting cornerback Omar Bolden were knocked out of action in successive practices Thursday and Saturday.
Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said following Tuesday's practice that MRI exams confirmed both men suffered torn ACLs and will have surgery next week.
"Those guys have been here ever since I've been here," Erickson said. "They battled through a lot of things. They worked their rear ends off and now they get to this point in their career and they get hurt."
The typical rehabilitation period for an ACL injury is 7-to-9 months, making it unlikely either player would be able to return until at least the second half of the 2011 season, if at all.
Bolden, a unanimous all-conference selection last season, seemingly has a strong case for a sixth year of eligibility if he elects to go that route. The NCAA occasionally grants a sixth year for players who have had the majority of two seasons lost to injury, and Bolden played in just four games in 2009 due to a MCL sprain.
Simpson's chances for a sixth season don't appear as strong, though it remains possible. He had an injury that contributed to his redshirting as a freshman, and Simpson played in seven games in 2009 before suffering a serious ankle injury. Last season was Simpson's best, as he had 29 catches for 481 yards.
One or both of the players could elect to attempt to return for the second half of the season depending on how they recover, whether they would be willing to stay for a sixth season, and if ASU believes an appeal -- the result of which would not be made until after the season -- would be successful.
The injuries leave ASU painfully thin at cornerback with just two scholarship players practicing fully this spring as junior Deveron Carr recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Erickson said he could move sophomore Alden Darby to corner, but won't immediately do so. Darby has played well at safety this spring with the first team.
At receiver, senior Mike Willie is also out with a shoulder injury, and there isn't nearly as much experience at the outside spots with Simpson also out of action.
"Somebody will step up," Erickson said. "That's why you play the game. That's why we have a bunch of guys. We talk about it all the time. One play, you're one play away from playing and that's what happens. We'll have somebody go in and play good."
Sophomore J.J. Holliday and freshman Kevin Anderson could be those players at receiver, while at cornerback Devan Spann has a golden opportunity to show what he's capable of.
Anderson had his best practice of the spring, making three great catches during 11-on-11 drills from the left, middle and right sides of the field that even had the referees buzzing about him afterwards.
"I'm starting to get in tune with the plays and everything now and everything is still new to me," Anderson said. "I'm starting to pick everything up one-by-one now."
Anderson is still adjusting to the style of college football. Comparing it to his days at Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Calif., he has certainty noticed a difference in speed and what he calls football savviness.
"In high school it's really 'you-do-this-and-you-do-that' routes and not really knowing the formations and concepts of the plays," he said. "So now you have to really think about coverages and route running and bring it all together and work at a really fast pace. It's pretty difficult but I'm getting it pretty well."
When trying to understand the concepts of the Sun Devil offense, Anderson goes to all the receivers because he knows they will all give him beneficial feedback. But when it comes down to his go-to guy, he goes to Simpson because they both are split ends. With Simpson injured, Anderson has at times been working with the first team in his place.
"He's hurt obviously but I mean he's willing to still work with me," Anderson said. "He's on my back [constantly] when we're in study hall. He's still seeing how I'm doing on the field. He's pretty consistent with being on my back about stuff."
Not to be outdone by Anderson's play, Holliday also had an impressive practice including a breathtaking over the shoulder grab on a deep go route. But Holliday made his biggest mark during Saturday's scrimmage at Sun Devil Stadium leading the team with three catches for 48 yards and one touchdown.
"The offense is looking real good," Holliday said. "Everything's coming together. It's looks really good right now."
In a similar fashion as Simpson, Holliday's comfort running deep routes as an outside receiver creates an offensive ability to open up the playbook. Roommates with junior running back Cameron Marshall, Holliday said his friendships with his teammates off the field has made him better as well as the team.
For someone who mainly played special teams and doesn't have any offensive stats, Holliday credits junior quarterback Brock Osweiler as someone who's helped him most, a connection you may hear more from during the season.
"I feel like I know the offense more," Holliday said. "I know the team more. We're all a lot closer. We're all like brothers.
"We really do a lot together. We're always together on the weekends, kick it with each other, weightlifting, practice, stuff like that."
On the other side of the ball, Spann also feels the same connection with his teammates. When Bolden went down during Saturday's scrimmage, senior defensive end James Brooks and junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict pulled Spann aside after and told him his was going to be needed more than ever before.
"I just looked at them both in the eye and said, 'I'm here for you guys. I'm going to do what I have to do to win,'" Spann said.
Spann has had his fair share of hard luck breaks before he even stepped foot on campus. As a senior at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., Spann suffered a shoulder injury that surprised him. He dislocated it twice in two weeks and said he didn't know the muscle was torn in four places. He had surgery and was able to recover in time for the track season. During the start of summer school at ASU, doctors told him he needed surgery again to remove an overactive thyroid.
The coaches had no choice but to redshirt him, something he was fine with. Waiting for his turn, he now gets a chance to show his skillset with the first team due to Carr being out of contact as he rehabs from shoulder surgery.
"I actually look at it as a blessing in disguise for me being that I battled injury all last year and I had to sit out," Spann said. "It's not a blessing that [Bolden] got hurt, but that I was able to fill in and they put their trust in me to fill in and I feel that's a blessing. But also to have my prayers out for him because I know this was a big year for him. I know he came back to get better and then this happens to him. My prayers go out for him."
Working alongside Spann with the first group, redshirt sophomore cornerback Osahon Irabor can relate to Spann's situation, seizing the moment himself as a redshirt freshman last season after missing the 2009 season due to a broken wrist.
Appearing in all 12 games last sason, Irabor started the last seven games when Carr went down and made the most of the opportunity, finishing the year with 40 tackles and one interception.
Now, he finds himself as the most experienced corner on the field.
"It hurts us," Irabor said. "You know Omar, fifth year senior, leader, a guy everyone looks up too. But at the same time, I had a lot of playing experience from last year. Deveron Carr will be coming back from injury, Devan Spann's looking good right now. We can just rally and we got to carry the load collectively."