ASU’s Burfict taking his talent – and volatility – to the NFL

Vontaze Burfict has seen the writing on the wall.  It says that next year will be a different ball game under a new head coach.

So he’s taking his shtick to the next level, announcing he will skip his senior season at Arizona State and make himself available for the next NFL draft.

The 6’3″, 250-pound linebacker who was described by a Sporting News writer as the “meanest man in football” was expected in the pre-season to be one of the best linebackers in the country.  But instead he had what his recently-fired head coach, Dennis Erickson, called an “average season.”

But that didn’t stop the volatile junior from jumping to the pro game.

The hiring of Todd Graham to replace Erickson likely had a lot to do with Burfict’s decision.  Graham, who left a head coaching job at Pittsburgh after one season to take over in Tempe, is a strict disciplinarian.

It was a lack of discipline that created many of the problems the young player encountered during his three years at ASU.  In fact, some sports analysts even suggested that Burfict may have been a contributing factor to Erickson’s failure to get the team to a winning season the last three years because of the chaos he brought to the program.

Burfict had difficulty controlling his emotions on the field and that led to reckless behavior that resulted in an abundance of unnecessary personal fouls.  It got to the point where Erickson had to resort to benching the destructive force at one point in the 2010 season.

This year was supposed to be different after Burfict announced his resolve in the off-season to play more under control.  But a hot-tempered incident with one of his teammates during a pre-season practice, which carried over to the lockerroom in a physical confrontation, was a signal that Burfict’s transformation wasn’t complete.

When he reportedly refused to return to the field during a game at the close of the season, it sent up a bright red flag that Erickson had lost control.  And put one more nail in the head coach’s coffin.

Erickson, who coached two Miami teams to national titles but lasted just five seasons at ASU, had expected big things from Burfict, who was projected in the pre-season as a strong candidate for national defensive player of the year.  But his numbers fell off and his attitude soured as the season deteriorated.

He was the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year and led the team in tackles as a sophomore, with 90.  But last season, he had 69 total tackles and five sacks.  Most games, he didn’t appear to be the intimidating force that opponents feared earlier in his career.

In a statement released yesterday by the ASU Athletic Department, Burfict said he plans to return to the university to eventually complete his degree.  But now the focus is on a new level of play – and new expectations.

He has been projected as a first-round pick in the 2012 draft by some, but others peg him somewhere in the second or third round.

His style of play will likely fit best with a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme, which will benefit from his ability to pressure the quarterback.  He could find a nice fit as an interior linebacker in that situation.

But, as an analysis by Sporting News points out, he will most likely go to a team that has a history of handling players who bring baggage with them as they start their pro careers.

Vontaze Burfict was the highest-ranked football prospect out of high school to sign a letter of intent to attend Arizona State.  Now, as he departs, if he can just leave his excess baggage in Tempe, he might be able to realize the potential he didn’t achieve at the college level.

It will be interesting to see which NFL team will take a chance on that happening.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)