For teams playing against Saguaro High in 2006, a tilt with the Sabercats should have come with a warning: Throw the ball at your own risk.
That's because if an opposing quarterback put the ball in the air, Max Tabach was probably going to come down with it. As a senior safety at Saguaro, Tabach, now a senior at Arizona State, led the nation in interceptions with 16.
Now, in his final season at ASU, Tabach is hoping to live up to his reputation as a ball hawk he built as a local prep star.
A knee injury cost Tabach most of his first season at ASU in 2008 -- he spent his freshman season at Glendale Community College -- and the 6-foot-2, 208-pound safety said the injury was still affecting him last season, when he played in all 12 games but totaled just three tackles.
"Last season I wasn't me out there," Tabach said. "Spring was the first time I could come out here without that knee brace and all that nonsense."
Tabach admitted he also allowed the injury to rattle him mentally.
"I'm not going to lie, I don't think I handled [being injured] the best way possible," he said. "I should have been more positive, but now I'm on the [upswing] and trying to get on the field as much as possible."
If Tabach's performance during fall camp is any indication, playing time won't be hard to find at safety, where a close competition at both spots is likely to lead to consistent repetitions for at least four players.
Tabach had one of the best performances of camp a week ago when he pulled of a trifecta -- three interceptions in one practice. He has been a consistent force since, earning time earlier this week with the first-team unit, and has been lauded for his progress.
"He's had a really good camp, and he's been really physical for us," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's finally healthy. He was hurt two years ago at USC and hadn't been the same. Now I think he's finally healthy and it makes a heck of difference."
For his part, Tabach said one his biggest focuses was putting the disappointments of what could have been earlier in his career behind him, aware that he still has the opportunity to make an impact during his last season in Tempe.
"I just had to attack it better from a mental aspect and have a better attitude and say, 'This is an obstacle and I've got to get around it,' rather than feeling sorry for myself for the first couple months," Tabach said. "That's water under the bridge now, though."
QB of the future?
With junior quarterback Samson Szakacsy resting a tired arm for the second straight session, true freshman quarterback Taylor Kelly got the opportunity to run the second-team unit during a controlled-scrimmage portion of Wednesday's practice.
On his fourth play, Kelly sold the defense on a fake of a zone-read handoff to freshman running back Deantre Lewis and darted around the left end for a 40-yard, untouched scamper into the end zone.
"I'm still looking for the ball over there," Erickson mused after practice. "All of a sudden he's way down the field. It reminded me of the guy at Oregon, [Jeremiah] Masoli (now enrolled at Ole Miss)."
Erickson had high praises for the freshman signal caller from Idaho.
"He's a gym-rat baller," the coach said. "What you see from him is what I saw him in high school. The guy is a tremendous athlete. An 11[-second] flat sprinter in high school, he was an all-state point guard in basketball. He's got a very good arm. He's got a gun, and he gets it off and he makes plays."
Simmons practices, not yet cleared
Offensive lineman Aderious Simmons, a transfer from El Camino Community College, practiced Wednesday for the first time. Simmons, per NCAA rules, is allowed to practice with the team now that he has completed the last of his remaining junior college coursework, but he will not be academically cleared to play in games until said coursework has been graded and reported.
Simmons went through individual drills in shorts and jersey, and will go through practice in that fashion for two sessions as required per NCAA mandate.