Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Arizona State junior linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
• Typecasting. Physically, Burfict could have passed for an NFL linebacker when he was still in high school: At 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, he already looked the part, and had both the college offer sheet and the guru ratings to prove it. As Rivals' No. 9 overall prospect in the class of 2009, Burfict was the first linebacker in the top 10 since 2006, and — after spurning local favorite USC — probably the most hyped Arizona State signee ever.
Two years on, as predicted, he's on the verge of becoming the most celebrated player in Tempe since Terrell Suggs, the last Devil defender to earn major All-America honors (2002) or go in the first round of the draft (2003). He's also on the verge of being labeled as an irredeemably reckless hothead, known equally for being the guy who can't stop committing dumb penalties as he is for being the guy who delivers hits so hard you have to respect the other guy for getting back up. Burfict's reputation precedes him on both fronts into his junior season, where the one that emerges on the other side will have a lot to do with his own future and his team's chances of stealing a Pac-10 championship.
• At His Best. As a physical specimen who can take on blockers between the tackles and rove from sideline to sideline, Burfict is the closest thing college football has to Ray Lewis. It took him no time at all to work his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman, or to establish himself as arguably the best player on the team — if not the best, then at least the most intimidating: He was second in tackles and tackles for loss, occasionally flashing in the process of flattening offensive linemen, chasing down future first-round draft picks and timing the snap to make not one but two key short-yardage stops in the second half of a last-second loss at Georgia. Arizona State led the Pac-10 in rushing and total defense, and Burfict was voted the league's Defensive Freshman of the Year.
After that, his emergence as a sophomore seemed less like a breakthrough than an invited guest showing up on time after RSVPing ahead. With Burfict patrolling the middle as the team's leading tackler, the Sun Devils held the dominant offenses from Oregon and Stanford to regular-season lows on the ground — and in Stanford's case, on the scoreboard, as well — and finished with the league's best run defense for the second year in a row. Burfict was voted All-Pac-10, picked up his first All-America nod from the Sporting News and moved to the top of the list of underclassman linebackers bound for the 2012 Draft, where he will unquestionably land barring a major injury.
|More Coming Attractions|
|• MICHAEL DYER, Auburn|
|• KEENAN ALLEN, Cal|
|• MARCUS COKER, Iowa|
|• BRYCE BROWN, Kansas State|
|• TYRANN MATHIEU, LSU|
|• ETIENNE SABINO, Ohio State|
|• JAMARKUS McFARLAND, Oklahoma|
|• DEVIN TAYLOR, South Carolina|
|• DARRELL SCOTT, South Florida|
|• SHAYNE SKOV, Stanford|
|• NICK PERRY, USC|
|Listed alphabetically by school.|
• At His Worst. Burfict's many dumb penalties (not to mention the ones that don't get called) aren't just dumb — at various points, flags on Burfict have backed the team into a corner and left him visibly flustered. If anything, his second year was worse than his first, at least in terms of the timing: In October, Burfict was briefly removed from the starting lineup after a dead ball head-butt on Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz; in November, he helped extend game-winning drives by both USC and Stanford in consecutive weeks.
Against the Trojans, Burfict was hit with a personal foul midway through the fourth quarter that contributed 15 yards toward the Trojans' go-ahead field goal with just over three minutes left, providing the final margin in a 34-33 Sun Devil loss. Seven days later, with ASU leading Stanford 13-10 in the fourth, he was flagged for not one, not two but three critical penalties ahead of a one-yard touchdown run by the Cardinal's Owen Marecic, the third coming in protest of the second, a sketchy facemask call:
In terms of his actual game, Burfict is far less effective in coverage than he is against the run, and has yet to record an interception.
• Fun Fact. I'm not sure it's possible to sum up any other career in one play as succinctly as in this moment at Georgia in 2009, when, in the span of a few seconds, Burfict draws a flag for inadvertently shoving a ref before going over the offensive line for an incredible leaping stop on 4th-and-1:
That, and this picture. You know, there's no better way to get rid of that bloody aftertaste than tasting the rainbow.
• What to expect in the fall. Every preseason All-America list worth its salt will include Burfict's name this summer, and barring injury it will be his last season in college. It's hard to see how Arizona State can mount a serious run at the Pac-12 South title without him living up to the next level of hype: Burfict's the engine at the center of the league's best run defense, and with all-conference cornerback Omar Bolden likely out for the year with an ACL tear, it also falls to him to pick up more of a leadership role.
As an every-down, tailback-seeking missile, no problem. As a cool-headed role model in the clutch, not so much. No doubt Burfict will come back preaching growth and maturity as an upperclassman, but after two years of veering dangerously close to becoming the next LeGarrette Blount, the only proof will be the flags that stay in the officials' pockets.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.