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Times Staff Writer

The question is simple: What should USC fans do when Omar Bolden runs onto the field today? More to the point, should they boo him?

The answer is not so straightforward.

Bolden will start at cornerback for Arizona State when the Sun Devils face the No. 8-ranked Trojans at the Coliseum. The sophomore ranks among the most promising young defensive players in the Pacific 10 Conference, but people in Southern California might know him better for an incident off the field.

“Honestly,” he protests, “I was just trying to do something different.”


Something that upset a few Trojans fans.

In early 2007, Bolden was a prized recruit at Ontario Colony High. He announced his choice of schools -- as so many players do -- on television. With family and friends gathered around, he placed three caps on the desk in front of him: Washington, Oregon State and USC.

One by one, Bolden pushed them away until only USC remained.

“I’m thinking it might be . . .,” he said, picking up the cardinal-and-gold hat as if to put it on.

But then he flipped it away and said: “Nah, I ain’t going to be no Trojan.”

In a scene that still plays on YouTube, he reached behind his back, produced an Arizona State cap and announced that he was headed for Tempe.

If his actions seemed disrespectful -- fans in USC chat rooms were not amused -- well, there was a back story.

Bolden grew up a Trojans fan. The feeling was mutual, but USC coaches wondered if he could qualify academically. Though he tried to assure them, they hesitated to offer a scholarship.

“They could have handled the situation differently,” he now says. “They chose not to.”

The USC assistant who recruited him understands what happened on TV that day.

“He’s just a kid,” defensive line coach David Watson said. “He wanted to be a Trojan and he felt slighted.”

Bolden calls it nothing more than a stunt for the cameras. Either way, he went to Arizona State and was academically cleared during training camp.

By the fifth game of the 2007 season, the 5-foot-10, 194-pound freshman became a starter and returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown to help defeat Stanford. A few games later, he tackled Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon on a play when Dixon suffered a torn knee ligament, spoiling the Ducks’ run at a national championship.

By year’s end, Bolden’s name appeared on several freshman All-American lists. This fall, his 23 tackles rank fourth on the team.

“He’s a leader back there in the secondary for us,” Coach Dennis Erickson said. “He’s a guy that we move around and put on different people.”

But what about that TV stunt?

“I never did see it,” Erickson said. “I don’t pay much attention to that.”

When USC played at Arizona State last November, there was chatter between Bolden and Trojans players, though he insists it was friendly.

And there’s one more thing you should know.

Watson tells a story about sitting around with his fellow coaches during an off week last year, glancing at the television and seeing Bolden on screen. Turns out Watson is a big fan.

“I love him,” the assistant said. “So physical. Competitive. Great speed.”

Once again, the feelings are mutual. Bolden plans to find Watson on the field after the game, just to say hello.

“Coach Watson is the coolest cat,” he said.

So what should USC fans do when Bolden runs onto the field this afternoon? Should they boo him? His family will be in the stands. He’ll finally be playing in the Coliseum.

The truth is, he doesn’t much care what people do.

“They’re fans,” he said. “I’m not going to change their minds.”