For much of his career at Arizona State, talk about wide receiver T.J. Simpson has often centered on the word "potential."
The Peoria High product often showed glimpses in practices of the type of big-play speed that made those around the program confident he could evolve into a dangerous deep threat, but had long struggled to push his way up the depth chart.
Now, with the wide receiver playing in an offensive system tailored to his skills and finally free some of the injuries that have nagged him, descriptions of Simpson are beginning to include different "p" words. Words like "playmaker" and "performer."
After a career-high eight catches for 95 yards Saturday against USC, Simpson is now third on the team in receptions (24) and receiving yards (376) and is first in average (15.7), transforming into a manifestation of the hopes coaches harbored that Simpson could become a game-changing, deep-ball threat.
One reason for Simpson's evolution as a receiver can be attributed to a growth in maturity since arriving at ASU as a freshman. Like many players in their first year, Simpson said it took him some time to understand the dedication necessary to succeed at the major-college level.
"With the game of football, you've got to be able to come every day and be able to grind," Simpson said. "You have to be able to go through adversity and bounce back on your feet and get going as fast as you can."
Simpson has had to bide his time in Tempe. After redshirting in 2007, he saw limited action the following year, catching two passes for 12 yards. Simpson showed more glimpses of promise as a sophomore in 2009 when he earned three starts, but an ankle injury cut his season short. Surgery then forced him to miss spring ball this year.
But Simpson worked hard on getting his timing down with ASU's quarterback's during the summer, and after a slow start to the season, the wide receiver has grown comfortable in the Sun Devils' pass-happy offense.
"He's probably playing better than any receiver we have right now, particularly the last three weeks," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's made a lot of big plays for us. He's grown a lot in the last three years. He's starting to take advantage of his speed, and he's catching the ball a lot better. He's really spent time working on that."
With four- and five-wide receiver sets commonplace in a passing attack for the Sun Devils that ranks second in the conference (292 yards per game), every receiver on the team has already registered career highs in catches and yards with three games still left to play.
"It's great to know that we are going to have passes thrown to us and are able to have an impact on the game," senior wide receiver Kerry Taylor said. "Me and T.J. like to think of ourselves as little sidekicks to each other. It's great that we are both in a position now to put up big numbers and help this team win."
Erickson said Tuesday that the coaching staff is aiming to find more ways to get the ball into Simpson's hands as an effort to utilize the receiver's speed. Simpson will welcome the opportunities, but said he is also enjoying his role in some of the more physical aspects of the game, such as blocking on the perimeter, a necessary skill for the receiving corps in ASU's offense.
"I'm just trying to help the team out," Simpson sad. "(Junior quarterback Steven) Threet is finding me when I'm open, and I'm making plays and am helping other people make plays, too. It's been a good challenge for me, and I've really been enjoying it."
Freshman running back Kyle Middlebrooks injured his ankle Saturday against USC and is questionable for this week's game against Stanford, Erickson said.
Middlebrooks didn't participate in Tuesday's practice but was fully dressed.
The freshman out of Fountain Valley (Calif.) High, who started the season at wide receiver, has 155 total yards and one touchdown on the season.
Junior defensive tackle Bo Moos (MCL), who didn't play against USC, practiced Tuesday and should be ready to play against Stanford, Erickson said.
Hankins issues apology
Senior punter Trevor Hankins issued a statement of apology Tuesday after serving a one-game suspension against USC for violation of team rules, which stemmed from an arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence in Scottsdale early in the morning last Friday.
"I would like to extend my most sincere apologies to my teammates, my family, my coaches and all the ASU staff, alumni and students for what happened in violating the team policy and not being able to perform Saturday against USC," Hankins said. "I really think it is a privilege to be an Arizona State University athlete and I will conduct myself as such."
Erickson said Hankins, who is currently third in the nation with a 47.1 yards-per-punt average, will play Saturday.
Hankins did not take questions from reporters.