Corona, CA: Is ASU Problem Child Vontaze Burfict Ready to Mature?

Top linebacker recruit Vontaze Burfict shocked everyone by choosing Arizona State in 2009. But since his arrival, Burfict has been as big a headache for the Sun Devils as he has been for opponents. Will Burfict be able to realize his enormous potential this fall?

A high school All-American from Corona, CA, Burfict was ranked as the No. 9 overall recruit, according to, at the time and became the first top 10 recruit in Arizona State history.

Burfict arrived at ASU with academic problems. He missed most of his sophomore high school season because of poor grades, then committed to USC before making the surprising jump to the Sun Devils.

One of the nation’s top players had turned down the men of Troy for … Arizona State? It’s not something that happens every day. But of course, the transaction didn’t go smoothly.

Before Burfict could don an ASU uniform, he would have to go through a grueling academic qualification process. The Arizona Republic reported in 2009 that it involved night classes, summer school and independent courses to make up for the linebacker’s poor first two years of high school.

The Republic reported that Burfict still had to convince the NCAA Eligibility Center that his academic improvement was legitimate, considering that he had become a 3.0 student in his junior and senior years.

Why were the Sun Devils so determined to bring Burfict to campus?

He had become a YouTube sensation for his ferocious play in high school, where he recorded 130 tackles during his junior season, a precursor to a senior campaign in which he was recognized as the nation’s top-rated linebacker prospect.

At 6-foot-3, 252 pounds, Burfict also was a physical freak who would be a playmaker for any defense. Many determined that corralling Burfict could be a defining moment for coach Dennis Erickson at Arizona State.

Instead, Burfict has been one big headache – literally.

In his lowest moment to date, Burfict head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz for no good reason during last September’s 31-28 loss to the Beavers. It was the last straw for the coaching staff, which had seen enough of Burfict’s antics and decided to bench him for the following week’s game against Washington.

Burfict constantly had been flagged for silly personal fouls penalties and induced numerous incredulous looks from coaches for brainless plays. Erickson couldn’t take any more of it.

“This has totally to do with Arizona State and our football program and Vontaze,” Erickson told The Arizona Republic. “I want him to be the best he can be, and if he learns from this he’ll be the best he can be.

“He’s got that issue, and he’s going to overcome it and be a successful player here. At this point, if he does that he just can’t play.”

The issue, according to Erickson, is Burfict’s inability to control his emotions. Before he smacked Katz, Burfict had thrown two unnecessary punches toward Oregon State players in the same game. It was reckless behavior that couldn’t be tolerated.

Curiously, Burfict also doesn’t talk to the media much. ESPN’s College Football Nation Blog said that Burfict “doesn’t like to do interviews and that he’s shy.” But the blog revealed that the unofficial reason for the silent Burfict is that the school is protecting him from himself.

And Burfict’s work ethic has been less than stellar as well.

“He’d work out last year, but there were days where if he didn’t feel like it, he wouldn’t show up,” linebackers coach Trent Bray told the Arizona Republic in April.

Now entering his junior season, Burfict says he’s ready to become a leader of the defense.

Why the sudden change? Well, Burdict knows that he’s still projected as a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft. He could play himself out of millions of dollars if he doesn’t clean up his act.

An early 2012 mock draft from ESPN’s Todd McShay has Burfict going 22nd overall to the San Diego Chargers. Consider McShay’s assessment of the Arizona State linebacker.

“Burfict is a work in progress and needs more game experience and coaching, but he is a physical specimen who can play sideline-to-sideline and blow plays up like no other linebacker in the country.”

Yes, Burfict is still considered at the top of the heap when compared to his peers – just like he was coming out of high school. But there is more urgency now that the NFL is on the horizon.

The Sun Devils, for their part, need Burfict to be a leader on defense, especially after they lost senior cornerback Omar Bolden to a knee injury.

“I really have to step up now,” Burfict told the Arizona Republic in April. “Before, Omar and I were both leaders. He was the secondary leader and I was the front-seven leader.

“Now with Omar going down, I’m going to have to take both groups and combine it as one.”

Burfict is saying all the rights things – even if it’s a shock that he’s saying anything at all. But the real test will be when the games begin this fall.

The talent is certainly there. Everyone seems to have their favorite Vontaze Burfict story, such as when he leaped over the entire offensive line against Georgia a la LaVar Arrington. The Sporting News recently called him “the meanest man in college football” and referenced an NFL scout saying Burfict is “what you get after you kick Ray Lewis’ dog.”

The question is, will Burfict direct that anger to become one of the all-time greats like Lewis or will he turn into a problem child in the NFL like Albert Haynesworth who isn’t worth the trouble?

This fall will be a huge step in deciding that.

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