April showers may in fact bring May flowers for some, but what April ACL tears bring for the Arizona State Sun Devils remains to be seen.
In the wake of torn ACLs of cornerback Omar Bolden and wide receiver T.J. Simpson, the surge of optimism that has permeated throughout Tempe over the winter has abated.
Simpson was one of the team's leading returning receivers after hauling in 29 receptions for 481 yards as a junior in 2010. His 16.6 yards per reception lead the team and he showed continual improvement through the year.
The loss of Bolden is far more damaging. A unanimous first-team All-Pac-10 selection last season, Bolden passed up on the 2011 NFL Draft to return for a final season as a Sun Devil.
The recovery time for these injuries typically spans anywhere from five to eight months, so while the door is not totally closed on a return, it's close.
There has been talk that the injuries will prevent the Sun Devils from fulfilling the promise many believe they have of challenging for the Pac-12 South title. However, the situation is not as dire as many think, with several very capable players ready to step up.
Let's take a look at the key players at both positions.
Of the two positions, the Sun Devils are better equipped to fill Simpson's spot.
I recently spoke with the now graduated Kerry Taylor, ASU's leading receiver last season and the only offensive starter not returning. When asked who would be the X-factor in 2011, he quickly pointed to wide receiver Mike Willie.
"The guy is a beast out on the field. He is a complete wide receiver. He can run, catch, block and is probably the most physical receiver I have seen at ASU in my time there," said Taylor of his former teammate.
Willie showed a knack for making tough catches and moving the chains. That trait, along with his physicality, reminds many of a young Hines Ward. He made 36 catches for 442 yards, led the team with six touchdown receptions and figures to be the go-to target to start the season.
A lot of attention has been made about George Bell as he enters his second season. Bell has a great size (6'3") and speed combination, but his playing time was limited last season after several key drops, including a dropped touchdown against Oregon State.
He has rebounded with a strong showing in spring practices, as has Kevin Anderson, a diminutive redshirt freshman.
Senior Gerrell Robinson continues to look for that breakout campaign that has eluded him during his time in Tempe. He has the all the tools to succeed, but he was hampered by injuries in 2010, although he did finish second to Willie with five touchdown receptions.
Aaron Pflugrad started the season strongly, but a nagging turf-toe injury hampered him over the season's final seven weeks. When healthy, he is a reliable underneath target in the Wes Welker mold.
Although not a wide receiver, perhaps the team's most explosive pass catcher last season was running back Deantre Lewis. Now a sophomore, Lewis is recovering from a bullet wound to the buttocks he suffered as an innocent bystander in February, but he is expected to make a full recovery.
He has an explosive element the team has not seen since the days of J.R. Redmond and he is a true home-run threat.
The question shouldn't be whether the Devils can truly replace their shutdown cornerback, as no one on the roster has the star-level talent of Bolden, but rather can they provide a solid enough level of play to not be a weakness?
The answer is yes.
The most critical player in this effort will be junior Deveron Carr.
He opened 2010 as the starting cornerback opposite of Bolden and played well and notched an interception before he was lost for the season against Oregon State with a shoulder injury. The injury has so far kept him out of spring practice, but he has good size at 5'11" and his previous starting experience will be key.
Once Carr went down, he was replaced by Osahon Irabor. Now a 5'10", 180-pound sophomore, Irabor had some initial struggles but improved steadily down the stretch into an effective player, finishing with 40 tackles and an interception.
He has great potential, and with the valuable experience of his seven starts from last season, he could very well grow into one of the top corners in the conference.
After Carr and Irabor, the options have far more question marks.
In searching for answers, head coach Dennis Erickson is expecting someone to emerge during offseason practices.
"Somebody will step up. That's why we have a bunch of guys," he says.
One of those guys is Devan Spann, a 5'11", 175-pound redshirt freshman who likely would have seen time last year if not for an illness that ultimately required thyroid surgery. He's had a strong spring, prompting Erickson to say: "We've always thought he was talented and now he's stepping up."
There's been talk of moving safety Alden Darby to cornerback, but with the loss of Max Tabach, there's concern of weakening the safety spot and, as of now, such a change is unlikely.
The Bottom Line
Losing a shutdown cornerback and a valuable deep threat is never good for a team, but the silver lining to this situation is that the injuries happened now, rather than in fall camp.
This gives ASU's talented coordinators—Noel Mazzone of the offense and Craig Bray for the defense—plenty of time to evaluate, coach and implement solutions, and they have plenty of talented young players at their disposal.
If there's one thing last season proved, it's never to question the heart of a Devil.
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