CAMP TONTOZONA - In a recent Arizona State practice, Rudy Burgess caught a pass on a short out pattern and let momentum carry him out of bounds, raising Eric Yarber’s disciplinary antennae.
“Hey, 'Old Man,’ ” said Yarber, ASU’s receivers coach. “I remember when you were younger, you would stop your feet and cut up the sideline. Don’t just quit on the play.”
Yarber’s mini-lecture to Burgess, a senior, served as a reminder that each player, regardless of experience, is not exempt from hustling on each snap. The “Old Man” nickname, however, was a reference of respect.
There have been bigger, stronger and more talented players in ASU history. But few have been quite like Burgess, whose bravado to take on all challenges — anywhere on the field, no matter how much his body gets taxed — has earned him the utmost admiration of his teammates.
“You can see right away how the players have a great deal of respect for Rudy,” first-year coach Dennis Erickson said. “He’s a huge leader for us, and everyone on the team roots for him to be successful.”
Burgess, who turns 23 on Sept. 19, is by no means old. However, the myriad pitchforks he has encountered, primarily through injuries and position changes, as a Sun Devil have made him football wise beyond his years.
From wide receiver to running back to receiver to cornerback, Burgess has stepped in wherever ASU has had a desperate need.
“Some guys want to do things, but they get hurt or whatever and can’t take up the call,” said Burgess, who has 1,051 yards rushing and 1,069 receiving in his career. “When a guy like me is willing to step in there and picks somebody up, I think that shows what kind of teammate you are.”
That unselfishness has come at a personal cost.
The 5-foot-10, 188-pounder took a constant beating at running back, and at cornerback last season he suffered a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss four games. Burgess has never spent enough time at his best position, receiver, to develop into the threat the Sun Devils believe he can be.
After he arrived at ASU, Erickson ended Burgess’ vagabond ways, moving him to wideout. To stay.
“It’s a little more relaxing, a lot less stressful,” Burgess said. “I only have one playbook to study. I expect a lot of myself, and I want to perfect any position that I play. It’s hard to do that when you play different spots. This year, I have to perfect one.”
In practice, Burgess has been running with the first and second units.
“He’s a key ingredient not just for our offense, but the team,” quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. “Rudy is a leader who has been here a long time and played in a lot of big games. We need him this year.”
In 2004, injuries and dismissals created a dearth at tailback, so Burgess moved there and, in his first start, rushed for 186 yards on 34 carries during a November game against Stanford. He was so battered that he did not regain full strength until the Sun Bowl, when he rushed for 125 yards in a victory against Purdue.
“You should have been the MVP of the Sun Bowl,” Smith once told Burgess, referring to an award that went to former QB Sam Keller. “But you’re my MVP. I’ll be the junior MVP until you graduate.”
He remained at running back in ’05 and again came up big in the postseason, with 102 yards and two touchdowns rushing in the Insight Bowl against Rutgers. Last season, Burgess was back at wide receiver, but injuries and inconsistency at cornerback resulted in then-coach Dirk Koetter calling on him again.
In his second start at corner, Burgess injured his ankle on the turf at Washington and did not return until playing sparingly on special teams in the Hawaii Bowl. Through it all, he has no regrets, accepting each assignment by charging ahead, oblivious to the physical ramifications.
“You live life once, and I’m trying to get the best out of my situation, my time in college football,” Burgess said. “You have to give a little to get a little. The pain on Sunday mornings, the pain I might feel when I’m older … it isn’t not fun to go through, but I’m willing to accept that sacrifice.”
Burgess is almost always effervescent on the field, so it is difficult to gauge is mood. But those close to the ASU program indicate he is as happy about football as he has been in a long time.
He is the Sun Devils’ old guy in service, but certainly not in spirit.
“Whether you are bleeding or running by the guy you’re playing against, no matter what happens in this sport, it’s worth it,” Burgess said.
“It was a total surprise to me, some of the turns my career has taken. But it’s been a gift. I’ve been blessed.”
After compiling a combined 1,475 yards in catches in 2006 — in other words, not much more than Derek Hagan had by himself in each of the previous three years — ASU’s wide receiving corps must raise its production level this season.
The good news for the Sun Devils is that there are a number of candidates and a wealth of potential talent to tap. Kyle Williams had a huge spring and looks the part of a big-play threat, and Michael Jones has enjoyed a good fall camp. Nate Kimbrough (knee) and Rudy Burgess (ankle) are back from injuries.
Brandon Smith was a first-teamer at the start of practice, but he has been out with an ankle sprain. True freshman Kerry Taylor, a Chandler Hamilton High graduate, appears to be an immediate contributor. Chris McGaha, Jeff Gray and T.J. Simpson are also in the mix.
If ASU played a game today, Jones, Burgess and Williams (at slot reciever) would likely be the starters.