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August 16, 2010J.J. Holliday isn't used to sitting on the sidelines.
The Arizona State redshirt freshman wide receiver began developing his hands when he was 5, playing catch in the backyard with his dad. He sharpened his wheels during his time in youth football leagues as a running back.
"I used to just grab the ball and run as fast as I could," Holliday said.
Football has always been a part of his routine, which made last year excruciating for Holliday.
After starring at Tucson Santa Rita High, the receiver spent last season redshirting on the scout team, a normal part of the process for most college football players. But not being out under the lights during big games was anything but normal for Holliday.
"That was probably one of the hardest things in my life," he said. "You just keep practicing with no game, no reward."
That reward may be on it's way soon, though.
Holliday stormed out of the gates during spring practice, well aware that with a newly implemented offense predicated on the playmaking ability of receivers, he would have his opportunity to show what he could do.
At 6 feet, 170 pounds, Holliday isn't physically imposing on the gridiron, but a combination of solid hands, deceptively quick speed and a tireless attention to detail, he has continued to impress during fall camp.
"I think J.J. has done a great job of just coming out and improving every day," said junior quarterback Steven Threet, who often targeted Holliday as a fellow scout teamer last season. "He put in a lot of work this summer and it's starting to pay off for him. His route running is getting better every day and he's doing a great job of learning this offense."
Holliday also has a slight chip on his shoulder he is using to aid his ascent up the depth chart. Despite a stellar career at Santa Rita -- 109 receptions for 2,351 yards and 30 touchdowns -- the Tucson native wasn't recruited by the hometown Wildcats, becoming just the second high school player from Tucson to sign with ASU since 2002.
"It gave me a lot [of motivation]," Holliday said of being passed up by Arizona.
Consistency has proved to be one of the receiver's greatest strengths this fall, as he seemingly never has a bad practice. Finding himself undersized at the major-college level -- he wasn't exactly a towering presence in high school either -- Holliday said he has learned to take advantage of his strengths.
"I feel like I have to use my speed more, my quickness," Holliday said. "I try not to get touched, not let [defensive backs] even put their hands on me. I have to have good hands, hand speed, and good footwork."
Not just catching
While the aim of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's scheme is to put the ball into the hands of playmakers in space, that space can't exist without solid blocking.
The onus has been placed on the ASU receiving corps to become quick, agile blockers, charged with creating room for ball carriers to operate.
Erickson likes the progress he has seen in the area.
"That's the biggest improvement I've seen on this football team," the coach said. "Coach [Steve] Broussard makes it a must if you want to play. If you can't block, you're not going to play. That's his philosophy and that's our philosophy. The improvement has been night and day."
For the receivers, it's a change in mindset, knowing they are likely to be just a valuable without the ball in their hands as they are catching it.
"We're getting it down right now and everything's clicking," Holliday said. "That perimeter blocking is real important in this offense.
Switching it up
One of the most hotly contested position battles this fall is taking place at safety, and a number of shuffles took place Monday.
Hard-charging senior Max Tabach, who had three interceptions in a practice last week, spent time with the first-string unit. Redshirt freshman Shane McCullen played with the second team for the first time since camp began.
"We've got four, five actually we think can play," Erickson said. "So we put Keelan (Johnson) and Max in there and Clint (Floyd) and Eddie. We're alternating and we feel like that's an awfully good mix. They're not that far apart. (It's) different combinations and a lot of competition."
Junior tight end Trevor Kohl missed Monday's practice (hamstring). Junior Gerell Robinson worked out on the side as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury he suffered during the first week of camp. Robinson is questionable for Saturday's scrimmage, as Erickson said he doesn't want to rush the wide receiver back too soon.
Senior guard Jon Hargis continues to impress with his rehabilitation from a torn ACL suffered during spring practice. Hargis was running at a pace just below sprinting during Monday's practice.
"He's three months away, at least, but that's a lot better than we thought," Erickson said. "They was the first time I saw him running around and he looked good. It's amazing what the mind can do sometimes."