NCF Nation: Brandon Magee

You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 22, 2013
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Here are some keys and storylines to watch this spring in the South Division. Yesterday Ted looked at the North Division.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

Start date: March 3

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New battery: The Wildcats are looking to replace a top-notch quarterback-center combo in Matt Scott and Kyle Quinn. The rock-solid duo helped produce one of the top offenses in the league. Jesse Scroggins and B.J. Denker are among those in the mix to run the offense and several returning offensive linemen are versatile enough to move around. Chris Putton and redshirt freshman Beau Boyster could be in the mix at center.
  2. Many happy return(er)s: Arizona returns a big chunk of its offensive production -- including running back Ka'Deem Carey and receiver Austin Hill. Both should be on all sorts of preseason teams and awards watch lists. But behind the big names, there's also David Richards, Johnny Jackson, Tyler Slavin and Garic Wharton back in the mix.
  3. No learning curve: Last spring, the talk was about Rich Rodriguez calling out his team for its lack of physical conditioning. The fact that the majority of the team understands what is expected -- and they don't need to spend the whole spring learning new systems, should be a huge help. Consider that the Wildcats return their entire defense from a group that was, at times, shaky, but will certainly benefit from another full season of playing in the 3-3-5 scheme.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Plugging the middle: One of the few losses to ASU's roster is middle linebacker Brandon Magee -- a leader on and off the field and an all-around heck of a player. Carlos Mendoza looks to be a good fit -- though he's likely to miss spring while continuing to recover from a shoulder injury suffered against Illinois. Folks might remember his two interceptions before going down for the year.
  2. Catching on: Unlike last spring, the Sun Devils have their quarterback. And he's a good one. Now, they need to find folks he can throw to. JC transfers De'Marieya Nelson (H-back, 6-3, 230) and Jaelen Strong (WR, 6-4, 205) are both big bodies who could step in and contribute immediately.
  3. Wait and see: The kicker here is a lot of these players who are expected to compete won't arrive until the fall. So in the meantime, a lot of the younger players and redshirts will get a ton of reps in the system. And speaking of kicker, don't underestimate how much of an impact Josh Hubner made at punter. Iowan Matt Haack, who arrives in the fall, is a rugby-style kicker who can kick with either foot. That's just cool.
COLORADO BUFFALOES

Start date: March 7

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Meet your QB: Whomever it will be. There are five on the roster and a sixth coming in. Safe to say, quarterback play was extremely inconsistent last season for the Buffs. With an entirely new coaching staff coming in and installing the pistol, this could be one of the more interesting and wide-open position battles in the league.
  2. Curious defense: One needs only to review Colorado's national rankings last year to realize they struggled. As one Buffs insider mentioned to me, they were ranked No. 1 in a lot of categories. Unfortunately, that "1" was followed by two more numbers. Only three defensive ends have playing experience. However a secondary that lacked experience in 2012 has a lot more looking into 2013.
  3. Receiver options: The Buffs welcome back Paul Richardson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Colorado's premier offensive playmaker will be a nice veteran presence to whomever wins the quarterback job. Grayshirt Jeff Thomas also is back. An improved passing attack should help give the quarterback some confidence and open up the running game.
UCLA BRUINS

Start date: April 2

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Life after Franklin: The Bruins say goodbye to the best statistical back in school history -- leaving a huge void in the backfield. Johnathan Franklin was a great presence for young quarterback Brett Hundley, but now someone has to step up to fill that role, either solo or along with a committee. Look for Jordon James, Steven Manfro and Damien Thigpen to all get looks.
  2. New No. 1: The Y-receiver, aka hybrid tight end, was filled wonderfully by Joseph Fauria -- Hundley's favorite red zone target. Darius Bell and Ian Taubler both had looks last year, but Fauria too will be tough to replace. Shaq Evans, Devin Fuller, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien round out a pretty good receiving corps.
  3. Secondary solutions: The Bruins must replace two corners and a safety -- Sheldon Price, Aaron Hester, Andrew Abbott -- and there isn't a ton of starting experience. Randall Goforth has five starts, but veterans such as Brandon Sermons and Anthony Jefferson have more special-teams experience than actual secondary play. Keep an eye on the secondary too when the Bruins start fall camp to see if any freshmen jump into the mix immediately.
USC TROJANS

Start date: TBD

Spring game: April 13
  1. New defensive scheme: The Trojans will move to a 5-2 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast, and the spring drills will be the first opportunity to see the defense in action. The Trojans will have an experienced front seven, but four new starters are expected in the secondary.
  2. Replacing Barkley: Max Wittek got the first extended audition in the battle to take over for Matt Barkley, but he didn’t do enough in two late-season starts to claim the job. Cody Kessler and freshman spring enrollee Max Browne also will be looking to take the reins at one of the glamour positions in college football.
  3. Lane Kiffin on the hot seat: The Trojans are coming off a disappointing season, and the fans are howling in protest, but so far his boss Pat Haden has maintained full support for his coach. Now is the time for Kiffin to show why that support is warranted. -- Garry Paskwietz, WeAreSC
UTAH UTES

Start date: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Erickson impact: The biggest question was what sort of role Dennis Erickson would play in the offense once he arrived. We'll know sooner than later. He already has talked about putting an identity on the Utah offense. That starts in spring when routines are established and expectations are set. And with Erickson on board to give the offense a push, the expectations will be much higher.
  2. Wilson maturing: That leads us to the presumptive starting quarterback -- Travis Wilson -- who jumped in midseason after Jordan Wynn got hurt and Jon Hays struggled to produce. Wilson went from OK to pretty good in just a few weeks. A nice jump considering his experience level. With an entire offseason knowing he'll be the starter -- and with Erickson and Brian Johnson molding him -- it will be interesting to see what progress he makes this spring.
  3. D-line makeover: The Utes lose some talent on the defensive line -- specifically All-American defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Look for DE/LB Trevor Reilly to spend more time with his hand down. Tenny Palepoi, LT Tuipulotu and JC transfer Sese Ianu could all see time in the mix at defensive tackle.

Pac-12 sees 38 invited to NFL combine

February, 8, 2013
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The official list of college players invited to the NFL combine is out and 38 from the Pac-12 made the cut. At least one player from every team in the conference was invited. A total of 333 players were invited and workouts begin Feb. 23. You can see the complete list here.

Take 2: Underrated Pac-12 players

December, 14, 2012
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In a league loaded with depth, sometimes really good players get overlooked when postseason awards are handed down. Today your Pac-12 bloggers are looking at which players we believe were the most underrated in the Pac-12.

Ted Miller: While I'm already on record as saying Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell is the Pac-12's most underrated player, I'm going to go in another direction here. Why? Well, I want to list statistics, and Mitchell's value most reveals itself in his not having many numbers because opposing offenses don't throw his way very often.

[+] EnlargeEric Kendricks
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsUCLA sophomore LB Eric Kendricks set himself up for preseason Pac-12 honors in 2013.
My pick for most underrated is UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was a tackling machine this year.

Tackling machine? Well, he led the Pac-12 with 137 tackles. He averaged 10.5 tackles per game, which is a full tackle ahead of Arizona State's Brandon Magee in the No. 2 spot, ranked 12th in the nation. Moreover, he did a lot of things well for a defense that was significantly better than it was in 2011, giving up 5.5 fewer points and 36 fewer yards rushing per game.

The 6-foot, 230-pound sophomore finished the regular season with six tackles for a loss, two sacks, an interception, five pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick.

He also came up big in big games. How many of his 17 total tackles -- seven more than any teammate -- made the difference in the nailbiting win over Arizona State? Or what about his effort in the Win of the Season, a 38-28 triumph over USC? He recorded 10 tackles, a tackle for a loss, an interception, a forced fumble and blocked punt against the Trojans.

The forced fumble in the first quarter set up a Bruins touchdown. His punt block, which came after USC had closed to 24-20 in the third quarter, led to another UCLA touchdown, extending its lead to 31-20. The interception was a key play in the fourth to seal the red-letter victory.

That performance earned him Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.

There were a lot of good linebackers in the Pac-12 this year. But four of the six on the coaches' All-Pac-12 teams were seniors. We expect Kendricks to get a first-team preseason nod in 2013.

Kevin Gemmell: It's so easy for us to take our running backs for granted in the Pac-12, isn't it? That's why I'm tapping Washington's Bishop Sankey as the most underrated player in the conference this year.

Playing in a league with Ka'Deem Carey, Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin and Stepfan Taylor, it's easy to see why Sankey was left off of the first and second team. And no, I wouldn't replace any of those guys with Sankey. The running backs in the league this year were so ridiculously deep that a 1,200-yard rusher on a 7-5 team is an afterthought. That's not to say Sankey isn't a really good player -- because he is. It just speaks to the depth of the conference.

[+] EnlargeBishop Sankey
James Snook/USA TODAY SportsA tremendous crop of Pac-12 running backs kept Bishop Sankey from getting more attention.
If Sankey played in pretty much any other conference, he'd be either first- or second-team all league. But he doesn't. He plays in the Pac-12, where three of the four All-American running backs come from.

Sankey rushed for 1,234 yards and 15 touchdowns. Looking at the other five BCS conferences, those numbers would have led the league in rushing in the ACC and Big East. They would put Sankey second in the SEC and Big 12 and fourth among running backs in the Big 10 (fifth overall if you count Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller). Those are first- or second-team credentials. In the Pac-12, it's just a mention ... even if it is honorable.

Originally thought to be a by-committee guy, Sankey's role changed dramatically when Jesse Callier went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the year against San Diego State. As he grew more comfortable in the role, Sankey's numbers and confidence skyrocketed. He ended the year with six 100-yard games and three games of at least 140 yards.

And since we're talking about showing up in big games, one of this best games of the year came against Stanford -- yes, top-five rushing defense Stanford -- behind a patchwork offensive line. He rushed for 144 yards and a season-high 7.2 yards per carry, including a 61-yard touchdown that sparked the Huskies come-from-behind victory. He went for 100-plus against Oregon and Utah -- considered two of the stingier fronts in the league. He had two touchdowns against Oregon State -- another elite defense.

At 5-10, 200 pounds, the sophomore has perfect size. He's the 11th Husky to rush for 1,000 yards; his total is the eighth-highest in school history and his 15 touchdowns are tied for second-most ever. With similar production next year -- coupled with the departure of Taylor, Barner and Franklin -- I wouldn't be shocked to see Sankey rise from the honorable mention ranks to the first- or second-team.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 26, 2012
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Taking stock of Week 13 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Quick: Name the team that you saw as a certainty to lose this past weekend. Washington State, right? The Cougars were 2-9, mired in controversy, and their best defensive player, OLB Travis Long, was out with an injury. Further, rival Washington was riding high, having won four games in a row. And when the Huskies took an 18-point lead into the fourth quarter, that certainty felt confirmed. Heck, the Pac-12 blog even tweeted a postmortem, declaring the Cougs dead. But despite all that was against them, the Cougars rose up and won. Kudos, particularly to the seniors, who end their careers on a high note.

Best game: The Apple Cup was exciting -- it went to overtime -- but it was terribly sloppy. No. 1 Notre Dame's 22-13 win over USC, while certainly not elegantly played by the Trojans, was a high-stakes affair that wasn't resolved until the waning moments of the fourth quarter. While Notre Dame was seemingly in control throughout, USC's offensive talent made it seem as though things could change quickly. The Fighting Irish stopped USC eight straight times inside the 10-yard line with 2:33 left to ice the game, which was pretty darn dramatic (though USC fans might use another term).

Biggest play: With less than six minutes left and the score tied at 27, Arizona lined up to punt from its 15-yard line. The Wildcats already had lost momentum, allowing a 10-point lead to slip away, but there was no reason it couldn't swing back their way. Unless they gave up a blocked punt, which they did. Kevin Ayers got the block, and it was recovered at the Arizona 8-yard line. A TD run from Cameron Marshall later, the Sun Devils took a lead they'd never relinquish.

[+] EnlargeReggie Dunn
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireUtah's Reggie Dunn runs into the end zone after his one 100-yard TD kickoff return late in the fourth quarter against Colorado.
Defensive standout: Arizona State LB Brandon Magee, a Pac-12 blog favorite, collected a career-high 17 tackles -- 14 solos -- with three coming for a loss in the Sun Devils' win over Arizona.

Defensive standout II: Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas, who has had a better season than his overall numbers indicate, was dominant against UCLA, recording two sacks in the win over the Bruins.

Offensive standout: It hasn't been the scintillating year many projected for Oregon WR/RB De'Anthony Thomas, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, but he came through big for the Ducks when they needed him in the Civil War. With Kenjon Barner banged up, Thomas turned in his best game of the season, rushing for 122 yards on 17 carries with three touchdowns. TD runs of 5 and 29 yards in the third quarter transformed a close game into a blowout.

Special-teams standout: Utah's Reggie Dunn quite simply has posted the best season a college football kick returner has ever had. In the win over Colorado, just after the Buffs tied the game with a 100-yard kickoff return, Dunn went 100 yards for a score on the ensuing kickoff, providing the winning points. It was the fourth time this season and fifth time in his career Dunn has gone 100 yards for a touchdown on a kick return. Both are NCAA records.

Special-teams standout II: Washington State kicker Andrew Furney came up big in the Cougs' come-from-behind Apple Cup win. He tied the game with a 45-yard field goal and won it in overtime with a 21-yard kick. On the night, he was 3-for-3.

Smiley face: It was reasonable to wonder how Stanford might react at UCLA after its emotional, hard-fought win at Oregon. But the Cardinal were efficient, businesslike and dominant on both sides of the ball against a very good Bruins team. I'd bet if you asked the SEC champion which team it wouldn't want to play for the national title, Stanford might be the first team mentioned.

Frowny face: Late in the fourth quarter and holding a nine-point lead, Notre Dame stopped USC eight straight times inside the 10-yard line. First, you give credit to Notre Dame, which plays outstanding defense. Then you acknowledge that Lane Kiffin's play calling at this crucial moment was ... terrible, as L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote in detail here.

Thought of the week: With the Rose Bowl berth on the line, UCLA gets a second crack at Stanford on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game. With just six days separating that and their regular-season game, how might this matchup look different? Did the Bruins save some schematic ideas? Remember: UCLA already had won the South Division. With Oregon's win over Oregon State, the Cardinal needed to win at UCLA to earn the Pac-12 North Division crown. The Bruins' stakes were much lower: pride. If you're one for realpolitik in college football, a win Saturday would have sent the Bruins to boisterous Autzen Stadium for the Pac-12 title game. UCLA's chances to get to the Rose Bowl might be better at Stanford than they would have been at Oregon.

Questions for the week: Who had Stanford and UCLA as their North and South Division winners in August? Anyone? Anyone? I can't recall a published prediction picking either. But I now have written a post-it note that is now stuck to my desk: "There are no sure things. There are no sure things. Never forget." Of course, you know I will forget this.

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 25, 2012
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Upsets aplenty in the final week of the regular season.
  • Andrew Furney, K, Washington State: The kicker was absolutely nails in the Apple Cup, converting all three of his field goal attempts, including a 45-yard game-tying field goal late in the fourth and the game-winner in overtime. He also hit a 21-yard kick to open the scoring in the Cougars' 31-28 win.
  • Reggie Dunn, KR, Utah: Utes’ coach Kyle Whittingham said what we were all thinking after Utah’s 42-35 win over Colorado: “I can’t believe they kicked to him.” Dunn did it again -- returning a kickoff 100 yards for the fourth time this season. It proved to be decisive points.
  • Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State: When the Wildcats turned the ball over, it was Grice who made them pay, rushing for three touchdowns (all off of turnovers) and 156 yards on 18 carries (8.7 average) during Arizona State's 41-34 win.
  • Brandon Magee, LB, Arizona State: A few different defensive players from ASU could get the nod, but Magee was on fire, notching 17 total tackles (14 solo) plus a game-high three tackles for a loss.
  • Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford: He tallied two sacks and two tackles for a loss in Stanford’s 35-17 win over UCLA -- which locked up the Pac-12 North for the Cardinal and set up a rematch with the Bruins next week in the conference championship game.
  • Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford: For the eighth time this year he provided the Cardinal with a plus-100-yard rushing performance, tallying 142 yards on 20 carries (7.1 average) and two touchdowns.
  • De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon: For just the second time this year, Thomas crossed the 100-yard rushing mark, totaling 122 yards on 17 carries (7.2 average) with three touchdowns in the Ducks' 48-24 win over Oregon State.
  • Oregon’s back seven: They tallied four interceptions, broke up four passes and kept the dangerous Oregon State receiving tandem of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks out of the end zone.

Another epic clash for Scott, Barkley?

October, 25, 2012
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Last weekend, Arizona's Matt Scott and USC's Matt Barkley led their teams to victory and played well. And you heard a lot more about Barkley than Scott.

Barkley was brilliant, and Scott was just very good. Barkley completed 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions against Colorado. It was the most efficient performance in the country this season and the most efficient in the history of the Pac-12. He now has 102 career TD passes, a Pac-12 record.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Russ Isabella/US PresswireSenior QB Matt Barkley has the Trojans sitting at 6-1 (4-1 Pac-12) entering Week 9.
Scott, who leads the Pac-12 in passing yards per game with 336.4, played a more supporting role while throwing for 256 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 43 yards and a score in a blowout win over Washington.

Yet it felt familiar. USC is always big news, even when it's not winning championships. And Barkley is the most famous college quarterback in the country, even if he's not going to win the Heisman Trophy.

Scott? His outstanding numbers and quick adoption of new coach Rich Rodriguez's offense resonates only regionally, if at all.

That might change. These two seniors meet Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., with Barkley, a four-year starter, trying to lead the Trojans back into the national title picture, which means not overlooking Scott and the Wildcats because of their Nov. 3 date with Oregon.

These two did meet once before. Let's hope this one is as fun as the first time: Oct. 4, 2007. That's when Barkley, a junior at top-ranked Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., and already highly celebrated, and Scott, a senior at No. 2 Centennial High of Corona, clashed in front of roughly 10,000 fans in the Santa Ana Bowl.

[+] EnlargeScott
AP Photo/Wily LowSenior QB Matt Scott and the Wildcats are 4-3 (1-3 Pac-12) entering Week 9.
Mater Dei won 51-37 in a game that featured 58 first downs and 1,295 yards of offense, a California high school record that didn't fall until this season.

"The fans definitely got their money's worth," Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson told reporters after the game. "That was some show."

Scott passed for 176 yards and rushed for 178. Barkley was 21 of 31 for 364 yards and two touchdowns. The Centennial defense featured Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Magee, Shelly Lyons and Will Sutton, who all signed with Arizona State. In a joint interview in 2011, the Pac-12 blog asked Burfict, Magee and Lyons about this game, and they all became a bit grumpy. It's fairly well-known that Barkley and Burfict are not exactly close.

Barkley was a five-star prospect in 2008, the nation's highest-rated quarterback. He signed with USC, which was on a dynastic run atop the then-Pac-10, with a 6-1 record in BCS bowl games over the previous seven years and two national titles.

So what does Rodriguez think of Barkley?

"He's obviously been one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Pac-12," he said. "He's likely to be the first pick in the NFL draft. We're facing one of the all-time greats and also a tremendous leader."

Scott, a year ahead of Barkley, was a three-star prospect who picked Arizona over California, Boise State and Utah. The Wildcats went 5-7 in 2007, their ninth consecutive non-winning season. He beat out Nick Foles for the starting spot in 2009 but lost the job to Foles three games into the season. When Foles was hurt in 2010, Scott came off the bench and played well, but he opted to redshirt in 2011 so he could finally inherit the keys to the offense as a fifth-year senior.

When asked about Scott, USC coach Lane Kiffin's first word is "Wow."

"He's a phenomenal player," Kiffin said. "I didn't realize he is as fast as he is -- accurate, arm strength. He's playing great, doing an unbelievable job with the system."

So there's plenty of admiration for both quarterbacks.

Scott said he and Barkley know each other from football camps and recruiting and get along well, but, yes, it would be meaningful to best Barkley on Saturday.

"They are the No. 9-ranked team, so it's going to mean a lot more," Scott said. "It's a big stage. A great quarterback is coming in here. It would mean a lot to outplay him."

If Take 2 is anything like Take 1, this one figures to be pretty interesting.
Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee is a talker. He's confident, with just a hint of cocky swagger, and he feels like he can chat up anybody on any number of sports topics.

And now he'll have a forum, if only for four hours.

Next Friday from 2 to 6 p.m., Magee will be a guest co-host on 620 AM in Phoenix. It's not every day that a college athlete gets the chance to sit in the chair and fire off sports opinions. But Magee, who one day hopes to have a career in sports media after his playing days are done (either football or baseball, he was drafted in the 23rd round by Boston), said he's ready to handle his four hours on the air.

[+] EnlargeArizona State's Brandon Magee
Jennifer Hilderbrand/US PRESSWIREAfter missing last season with a torn Achilles, ASU linebacker Brandon Magee is ready to return.
"I think it's going to be fun to try something new and step out of my comfort zone a little bit," said Magee, who is coming back after missing last year with a torn Achilles. "I have a lot of opinions so it's going to be fun to share those with everyone listening."

OK, let's try it out.
What are your thoughts on the new playoff system?

I think it's a great opportunity to try something new. There are a lot of complaints with the computer rankings and the people rating the teams. You might as well try something new for a few years and see how it works. If it doesn't work we'll come up with a new plan. So many people have been ready to see a playoff system and I think it will be a nice attraction for the fans out there to see a playoff with the top teams. It will bring a lot of excitement to the college game.
You're a baseball guy. The Diamondbacks are stuck under .500. What do those guys need to do to turn it around?

Honestly, I watch them pretty often. I believe they know what they are doing. They have some good players but they are a young team. But I think if they can pull it together they could make a run and be a tough team in the playoffs.

The Coyotes make it all the way to the Western Conference finals and then get smoked four games to one. Do you see them getting over the hump next year?

I do. When you get that close, it's going to eat at you all in the offseason and they are going to work even harder. I'd look for them to get there next season.

When a player goes on the radio, there have to be some questions that are off limits, right?

Nope. I'll answer anything.

OK. Who's going to win the ASU quarterback competition?

I think it's a three-way tie. Haha. Seriously. I don't know. Berco [Mike Bercovici] has more experience than the other quarterbacks. He had a good spring and a good camp. [Michael] Eubank, not a ton of experience, but he can use his legs and he's got the arm strength. He's got a big body. He's a load. Taylor Kelly can run and throw and manage the offense. He's good in every category. He's my sleeper quarterback.

But more than getting on the air, Magee is looking forward to getting back on the field. After missing all of last season with the Achilles tear, he watched in frustration as the Sun Devils started hot and then collapsed in the second half of the season.

"Watching that gave me a lot of fire for this year," Magee said. "It made me want to be a better leader for this team on and off the field. So I've been trying to sharpen my skills so when I come back, I can make sure that doesn't happen again."

Magee got a little work in spring ball, but mostly during seven-on-seven without any pads. He's set up camp in the film room learning ASU's new defensive scheme -- which he thinks is going to fit him just fine.

"It's been a long process coming back," he said. "But everything feels great. I just have to get my explosiveness back and I'll be ready for camp."

Burfict blames others for bad season

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
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The truth can now be told.

It was the media's fault. It was an undersized receiver's fault. It was the officials' fault. And, of course, it was the Arizona State coaches' fault that linebacker Vontaze Burfict had a bad junior season before opting to enter the NFL draft, according to a report from the Arizona Republic at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireArizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict conducted his first interview in months on Sunday at the NFL scouting combine.
Burfict talked to reporters for six minutes Sunday, and it was the first significant interview he's conducted in months. Here's why, according to Burfict:

For Burfict, however, it was one of the longer group interviews he's done in at least two years. He avoided interviews in college, he said, because "sometimes I did a written interview and the things I said didn't really come out as I said it. I just thought it was best for me not to do any interviews because people were putting words in my mouth and putting me as a bad guy."


I had one extended, sit-down with Burfict. I thought it went fairly well. In that interview, which he did with buddy and fellow Sun Devils linebacker Brandon Magee, Burfict called a Pac-12 quarterback a name that I can't type here, at which point Magee interrupted with an impressive filibuster to distract me (see if you can figure out which colorful Magee quote in that linked story is said filibuster). I chose not to use the insult. I also know other reporters who talked with Burfict tried to "work with him" in terms of giving him the benefit of the doubt when he said things that would make him look bad.

My point: Burfict's perception -- or spin -- here is inaccurate. I'd be eager to see if Burfict or his representatives can actually produce any interview where "people were putting words in my mouth and putting me as a bad guy." Just one.

What about all those inopportune personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties?

On Sunday, Burfict blamed that on officials and his aggressiveness.

"I just love to hit," he said. "I hate to lose."


And what about the way he played this year, going from sure-thing All-American to not even earning honorable mention All-Pac-12? Well, it was the coaches fault.

The decisions of coaches also played a role in the lack of production, he said.

"I played average," he said. "I could've played better. That's what hurt me at times. The coaches kind of messed me up. I didn't know if I would start a game or be benched. It hurt me, but I tried to fight through it."


Then there was Burfict's preseason fight in the locker room with a teammate:

He did accept blame, sort of, for punching a teammate in the locker room, an incident that carried over from the practice field, he said.

"It started in seven-on-seven and he ran a route and hit me, and we're not supposed to hit each other in seven-on-seven," he said. "We had an argument, and we brought it into the locker room. We started chattering about it, he started rough-housing me. He pushed me, and my first instinct was to swing, and everyone thinks I'm the bad guy because my first instinct was to swing on the guy."


Burfict belted receiver Kevin Ozier. Burfict is 6-foot-3, 252 (though he admits he played at 260 pounds last season) and a superstar. Ozier is 6-foot, 200. He's a former walk-on. And Burfict's initial point of contention is getting bumped by a 200 pounder during a drill?

Really?

Yes, Vontaze, you seemed like a bad guy in that instance. And it didn't help that you didn't show up the next day and tell reporters, "Look, I let my temper get the best of me. It was a terrible mistake on my part. I'm supposed to be a leader in this locker room. I've already apologized to Kevin, who's just a hard-working guy trying to make his mark on this team. I'm apologizing now to him and my teammates and my coachces again, and I want to let all Sun Devils fans know this won't happen again."

Heck, I could have told Burfict how to best handle his combine interview in a quick telephone chat.

Q: Why didn't you do interviews in college?

A: I'm a football player who's never been comfortable talking to people. I get nervous, and sometimes I say stuff that embarrasses me and those I care about. I think my swagger helps me play linebacker. But it also makes it hard to filter my thoughts. I'm still learning. And I know it's something I need to get better at.

Q: Has the media been fair to you?

A: That's hard to answer. Probably. But it's hard to read bad stuff about yourself. Sometimes I thought stuff was unfair. There's an image out there of me in the media, and I don't think that's who I am. But I do know I am responsible for my image. I also know that blaming the media does me no good. I need to focus on what I need to do to get better in all areas of my life, and I know that working with the media is part of being an NFL player.

Q: Why did you get so many personal foul penalties and late flags?

A: Sometimes I let my emotions get the best of me. Sometimes I was just playing football and those things happen. And then you get a few for your reputation. But I realize the bottom line is not hurting my team. Again, I know this is something I need to get better with, and I want any team that drafts me to know that I will.

Q: Why did you take a step back this season?

A: I've thought about that a lot. For one, I was too big -- 260 pounds. I need to be leaner in the NFL so I can play fast. I think I might have been distracted, thinking about the NFL. I tried not to be, but I have to say it was a problem. There were a lot of things. It takes 100 percent focus to be a great football player, and I didn't have that this past season. But college is different. There's a lot of stuff going on there that's not about football. The NFL is my dream. Wherever I end up, that team will have a linebacker who is 100 percent focused on being the best player he can be -- in every practice, in the locker room and every Sunday.


I know: This is not Burfict's voice. But you'd give him talking points for all the obvious questions and let him learn how to express a satisfactory response in his own words.

And most of all: He'd take responsibility and not blame others. In. Every. Instance. Period.

Football is not a game of excuses. You either do or you don't. And that's doubly true in the Not For Long league, where you get good or get gone.

I love watching Burfict at his best. He's a powerhouse with great speed and instincts. If his everyday attitude becomes "What do I need to do to get better?" then he will become an All-Pro.

But I've chatted with a lot of people who know Burfict well. Let's just say if Burfict is fueled by doubters, he won't be running on empty his rookie season.

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 23, 2012
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Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

Spring practice is almost here. Here's a snapshot at what to expect from the Pac-12 South in the coming weeks.

ARIZONA

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Hello, my name is ... Like the other two teams in the South Division with new head coaches (Arizona State and UCLA) much of Arizona's first few weeks will be Rich Rodriguez evaluating his personnel and getting to know what he has to work with. Likewise, the players are going to have to figure out what this new coaching staff is about. Everything from how they do pre-practice stretches to how they call the cadence is going to change.
  • New scheme and a new scheme: A spread option on offense and a 3-3-5 on defense. That's a lot of new material to digest on both sides of the ball. Until Rodriguez can recruit the players he likes into his scheme, he's going to have to make it work with the players he has. Fortunately on the defensive side of the ball, Arizona has good depth in the secondary with Cortez Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Shaquille Richardson, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant. The Wildcats should also get a boost with the return of injured players Jake Fischer (LB), Jonathan McKnight (CB) and Adam Hall (S).
  • Perfect fit? Former starter Matt Scott, who was beaten out by Nick Folesin 2009, is expected to reprise his starting role under Rodriguez. He redshirted the 2011 season and -- magically -- Foles never got hurt last year despite taking 23 sacks and countless hits. Scott is considered the more versatile quarterback and should fit nicely into the new run-based spread attack.
ARIZONA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 13

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • QB competition: We know what kind of offense new coach Todd Graham is going to run; now it's a matter of figuring out who is going to run it. Graham has his choice of three players -- Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly or Michael Eubank -- to replace NFL-bound Brock Osweiler. Graham said earlier this month that there are no favorites heading into the competition and each one brings his own skill set to the table. Eubank has the size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), Bercovici (6-1, 205) is a mechanic and Kelly (6-1, 202) is a little bit of everything.
  • Get the locker room: By the end of the 2011 season, ASU's locker room wasn't just divided, it was completely splintered. Graham's task -- and that of his new coaching staff -- is to pick up the pieces, mend internal fences and find some chemistry on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Brandon Magee, long considered a great locker room leader, should help get the Sun Devils back on track as he returns from a season-ending Achilles injury.
  • Hands competition: The Sun Devils lose three of their top four wide receivers from last season -- Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie. Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team last season with 60 catches and six touchdowns. Rashad Ross figures to be the No. 2 guy, but establishing depth in that corps -- especially if Graham wants to be up-tempo -- is key.
COLORADO

Spring practice starts: March 10

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Momentum, maybe? For as rough as 2011 was for the Buffs, they ended the year on a high note, winning two-of-three down the stretch -- including a 17-14 win over Utah in the season finale. But there is also the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. With just four returning starters on offense, spring in Boulder will likely be more about teaching and less about refining.
  • Where to start (offense)? Well, quarterback might be a good place. In the court of public opinion, Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, seems to be the favorite. Nick Hirschman appeared in five games last season, mostly in mop-up time when the game was already out of hand. It's also possible a starter could be named by the end of spring ball. Finding offensive weapons to surround the new quarterback will also be a challenge. Wide receiver Paul Richardson caught 39 balls last season, and running back Tony Jones showed a flare for catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll likely step in as the new workhorse back for the departed Rodney Stewart.
  • Where to start (defense)? Last in this. Last in that. Last in almost every team statistic the Pac-12 has to offer. But there are some intriguing youngsters on the roster. Cornerback Greg Henderson was all-conference honorable mention as a freshman with a team-high nine passes broken up. Jered Bell also returns from injury after blowing out a knee last preseason. If healthy, he's expected to be a big contributor in the secondary. Linebacker Jon Majorreturns as the team's leading tackler, and if Doug Rippy is fully recovered from his knee injury, he'll look to build on what was a pretty good season last year before getting hurt.
UCLA

Spring practice starts: April 3

Spring game: May 5

What to watch:
  • QB up for grabs: Like the majority of the conference, UCLA enters spring with a quarterback competition. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said he doesn't care how much experience (or lack thereof) a player has -- if he can play, he wins the job. So don't be surprised if Brett Hundley passes Kevin Prince and Richard Brehautas the new man leading the Bruins. Fans have been clamoring for a change. Hundley might be it.
  • Attitude adjustment: One of the first things new head coach Jim Mora did was slam the team for its tradition of going "over the wall," a time-honored senior ditch day, saying if they want to jump the wall, they should just keep on going. How's that for sending a message? UCLA has earned a reputation for being soft and underachieving despite good talent. Attitude and toughness is needed -- and so far, Mora appears to be hammering that point home.
  • Speaking of toughness ... The defense has to get tougher. No two ways about it. It was weak against the run last season, allowing more than 190 yards per game on the ground; couldn't get to the quarterback; and couldn't get off the field almost 50 percent of the time on third down. It's time for potential all-conference players such as defensive end Datone Jones to start living up to the hype and the defense as a whole to stop getting pushed up and down the field. At 6-5, 275 pounds, Jones has the physical makeup to be a major force in the conference and catapult himself into the elite class of collegiate defensive players.
USC

Spring practice starts: March 6

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Ignore the hype: Few teams ended last season hotter than USC and returning quarterback Matt Barkley. The Heisman talk has already started, the way-too-early rankings already have the Trojans as national championship contenders, and the public perception is that the offense is unstoppable. Nice to hear, but hype is a double-edged sword. Head coach Lane Kiffin has a knack for deflecting hype. This season will be his toughest test to date.
  • Insurance? The Trojans are loaded on both sides of the ball with returning players. But after the starting 22, things start to get dicey. Developing depth and keeping the starters healthy is a top priority -- particularly on the offensive and defensive lines and at running back, where experience is thin outside of the starters. The entire back seven returns on defense -- headlined by hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald. Stopping the pass has been a major priority for Kiffin, and if this group stays healthy it should see the pass-efficiency numbers improve even more.
  • Other options: Along those same lines, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee make up the most feared receiving duo in the conference -- maybe the country. But who are the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers behind them? George Farmer? Victor Blackwell? De'Von Flournoy? Don't overlook the tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, which should rival Stanford's Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as the best tight end tandem in the conference.
UTAH

Spring practice starts: March 20

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Youthful approach: Head coach Kyle Whittingham turned some heads by naming former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Johnson, who recently turned 25, said he's not looking to make wholesale changes to the offense, though he wants to put his stamp on it and continue to build around running back John White IV, who had a breakout season in his first year of major college football. Having quarterback Jordan Wynn back healthy should also help as the team transitions to Johnson running the offense.
  • Fixing the line: Who is going to protect Wynn (if he does indeed win back the starting job) and make holes for White? That's a major concern heading into spring as the Utes have to replace a pair of all-conference linemen in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. The Utes should be set at the interior but have to adjust to a new position coach, with Tim Davis leaving for Florida after just one season and Dan Finn -- a former Utah graduate assistant who was brought on to help Davis -- taking over the whole line following a one-year stint at San Diego State.
  • Work the experience: The defensive line should be one of the best in the conference, especially with the return of Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy last season as the conference's best defensive lineman. With the Kruger brothers returning to the line -- Joe at defensive end and Dave at tackle -- Derrick Shelby is the lone starter who has to be replaced. There's also some pretty good depth in the secondary that was tops in the conference last season in pass-efficiency defense.

Starting CB goes down for Arizona

August, 26, 2011
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The desert hasn't been good to defensive backs of late.

Arizona lost starting cornerback Jonathan McKnight for the season after it was announced he tore his ACL during Wednesday's practice. The true sophomore, brother to former USC tailback Joe McKnight, has a redshirt year available.

That's not a total disaster because McKnight was one of three good cornerbacks, but his injury makes Shaquille Richardson and Trevin Wade the starters with little margin for error, and bumps true freshman Cortez Johnson up the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Jourdon Grandon becomes the nickelback.

McKnight is the third member of the Wildcats' defense to suffer a knee injury this offseason: Safety Adam Hall and linebacker Jake Fischer were hurt in the spring. Hall and Fischer could return to action in October.

Up I-10 in Tempe, Arizona State also has struggled with injuries, most notably cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee.
Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz laughs. Yeah, he remembers receiving a head-butt from Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict after a play last season.

"That started before the game, though. He was on the sidelines talking and everything," Katz recalls.

[+] EnlargeVontaze Burfict
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireArizona State is counting on a drama-free season from star linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
He then pauses. Katz is a sharp guy who favors giving reporters vanilla answers. But it's not hard to hear the wheels turning. He's being goaded to spice things up and he's considering whether than might be fun or not.

He takes a pass. Said Katz, "It's just competitive juices flowing. I don't take it personally. Things happen. I know he's an emotional player. He was just trying to get in our head."

Just about everyone who has played or coached against Burfict has a story. Many are about his breath-taking skills that rate the 6-foot-3, 252-pound true junior perhaps the nation's best linebacker, one with an NFL All-Pro future. But others are about him being unhinged, his intensity so overwhelming his self-control that he often hurts his team with his antics.

The head-butt to Katz, in fact, convinced Dennis Erickson, a coach not typically thought of as a strict disciplinarian, to take away Burfict's starting job last fall (albeit briefly).

A few weeks later, in a tight game with Stanford, Burfict was called for a critical face-mask penalty. It was a bad call, but Burfict couldn't resist the urge to point that out to officials, which earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of the face mask, which gave Stanford the ball on the Sun Devils' 7-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stanford pushed in the game-winning score, foiling a potential major upset that also would have earned the Sun Devils bowl eligibility.

In a highly competitive game with Oregon, Burfict spent a lot of time focusing on the Ducks' sideline, including mocking coach Chip Kelly's well-publicized method of signalling plays with random graphics on a large poster board.

Want more? Go to YouTube. If you search Vontaze Burfict, you'll find a long list of great plays and dubious behavior caught on film -- both noticed and unnoticed by officials.

"A lot of people ask about Vontaze -- from Oregon, from other places," said former Ducks and current Sun Devils wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad. "They are like 'What's up with this guy?' He's a shy, quiet guy off the field, but he's just a monster on it. That's the only way to explain it. I've never played with anyone like him before."

While Burfict loves to talk, intimidate and get inside opponents' heads, he's not so chatty or revealing about his own state of mind off it. After a spring and offseason when he worked with the school's sports information office and granted more interviews than he did his first two years, he has turned down interview requests -- including one from the Pac-12 blog -- this summer.

While part of that is because Burfict is reclusive and insecure with public speaking, another part involves things he doesn't want to talk about, including a locker room fight with 200-pound receiver Kevin Ozier, which the school attempted to downplay. Since that incident, reports of other off-field skirmishes, including a practice altercation with receivers coach Steve Broussard -- which Erickson told reporters was "totally ridiculous" -- have surfaced.

All this has clouded a storyline that Erickson and ASU officials had been working on since the spring: Burfict as team leader, a role even more required of him after cornerback Omar Bolden and linebacker Brandon Magee went down with season-ending injuries.

Said Erickson at Sun Devils media day, which Burfict chose not to attend: "He's matured a whole heck of a lot. I'm really proud of how he's matured." That was just days after the locker room fight.

Fellow linebacker Shelly Lyons, like Magee a former Burfict teammate at Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.), was asked what Burfict needs to work on this season.

"I would say when he gets frustrated," Lyons said. "He really has all the attributes as a player -- size, speed, he can hit. So I'd just say that when he gets frustrated to take it easy. The referees have a target on him. He's got to hold it back this year."

Last season, Burfict led the Sun Devils -- and was ninth in the Pac-10 -- with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss. He also forced two fumbles. While there are some holes in his game -- his frenetic style sometimes gets him out of position -- physically, he's a finished product, one whose ability screams he's a certain top-15 NFL draft pick.

But the lack of self-control, on and off the field, will be an issue with NFL general managers.

If Burfict can fully focus his ability and intensity on what happens between the whistles, he could win the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. And the Sun Devils' defense, despite injuries, could become one of the top units on the West Coast.

If that happens, Burfict and the Sun Devils will have a happy ending: Perhaps a Pac-12 South Division title and a high draft pick.

"Hopefully this year it's controlled insanity and he doesn't go after a player or anything," Pflugrad said.

If it isn't, well, it's still likely to be great theater.

Injuries epidemic for ASU

August, 15, 2011
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Injuries are part of the game, coaches will tell you. That doesn't make them any less of a drag.

And no team is dragging more with injuries than Arizona State, which lost senior linebacker Brandon Magee for the season Saturday due to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Magee is not only a returning starter, there's also this from the Arizona Republic:
Defensive coordinator Craig Bray recently told The Republic that Magee was the team's best defensive player last season.

Over the past week, Magee had seemed to take a greater leadership role on the field, barking at the first-team defense to get to the ball and to work through fatigue.

Magee also is one of the "Centennial Threesome" with fellow LBs Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons. He and Lyons keep pretty busy helping the volatile Burfict maintain an even keel.

Perhaps no team in the county expected to contend for a national ranking has suffered as much roster attrition as the Sun Devils since the end of 2010. QB Steven Threet (retired due to recurrent concussions), QB Samson Szakacsy (left team), DT Lawrence Guy (entered NFL draft), CB Omar Bolden (knee), WR T.J. Simpson (knee), DE James Brooks (left team) and RB Deantre Lewis (gunshot wound). And since the beginning of camp, linebacker Oliver Aaron suffered a high-ankle sprain, backup defensive tackle Joita Te'i suffered a foot injury that will sideline him for seven weeks and cornerback Devan Spann dislocated his left shoulder two times in the first week of practice.

And now Magee.

Despite all this, the Sun Devils still have the makings of a good team. Just not as good of a team as they had when they walked off the field Dec. 2 after beating rival Arizona.
BurfictAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe Sun Devils are counting on Vontaze Burfict to be the leader of their defense in 2011.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The question is about personal fouls, and the look on Vontaze Burfict's face suggests that he's tired of that sort of inquiry. He's not a chatty sort as it is, but this is not a successful pathway into figuring out what makes the fearsome Arizona State linebacker tick.

"It matters what times you're talking about," he said of the myriad flags he's drawn for extracurricular activity during games over the previous two seasons. "They are totally different times. Some calls are bull crap."

Fellow linebacker Brandon Magee, a Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.) teammate, is sitting nearby. He offers his take on Burfict, who may be the nation's best inside linebacker.

"I wouldn't trade the fouls. Personal fouls are going to come," Magee said. "The way he plays out there, it doesn't matter to me. That's the way he plays. Great players, you might not like everything about them. But the one thing you can say is he gives it his all on every down."

One analyst, Petros Papadakis, called Burfict the "scariest" player in the country last year. In a not unrelated matter, it seems like an opportune time to change the subject, so Magee is asked if he thinks some players are scared of Burfict.

"They better be scared," said Magee, with just a hint of Don King showmanship. "We're not trying to be nice out there. We're not your friends. We're nobody's friends out there. I hope they know that, too. We try to make enemies. We don't want friends."

Burfict cracks up while Magee is talking.

Magee is told that some folks in the Pac-12 think Burfict is crazy. Does Magee ever hear that in games?

Replied Magee, "Oh, yeah, and I say, 'Yep. See if you can stop him.'"

Few can stop Burfict, a speedy, instinctive 6-foot-3, 252-pound package of football fury. Burfict more often has stopped himself after the whistles with personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Coach Dennis Erickson took away his starting job -- briefly -- last season after Burfict head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz. A few weeks later, in a tight game with Stanford, Burfict was called for a critical facemask penalty. The call, to use Burfict's term, was "bull crap," but Burfict couldn't resist the urge to point that out.

He was slapped with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of the facemask, which gave the Cardinal the ball on the Sun Devils' 7-yard line. Shortly thereafter, Stanford pushed in the game-winning score.

Burfict, you might have gathered, isn't a fan of interviews. He doesn't like the spotlight. He doesn't like to talk about himself. He just wants to bust heads and win games. At 4:30 p.m. ET -- 1:30 p.m. PT -- Tuesday, a video interview of Burfict will appear on the Pac-12 blog. You probably haven't seen many of those. Roy Firestone won't be jealous of its penetrating insights. It took a handful of takes to get through (hey, I messed it up once, too). But Burfict was a good sport and did what the folks at Arizona State asked. He's trying to take on a leadership role this season for a team with lofty aspirations, and that often includes stuff that isn't fun, such as being the superstar fronting the team for the media.

"I've got to lead by example, going to everything on time, being 10 minutes early," he said.

The public is probably not going to get to really "know" Vontaze Burfict, at least until he's ready to let them do so. But it's pretty clear that there's some distance between the Tasmania Devil on the field and the quiet, guarded dude off it.

"A lot of my friends from back home ask about him: 'How is Vontaze? Is he crazy? Is he a nice guy?'" offensive tackle Evan Finkenberg said. "He's actually really quiet outside of the football field. He's a really nice guy. He hangs out in my apartment sometimes."

The second-team All-Pac-10 selection earned a number of All-American honors last fall after leading the Sun Devils with 90 tackles, including 8.5 for a loss and two forced fumbles. His ability has never been a question since he was a touted recruit who was once committed to USC. More than a few folks will tell you a comparison to Ray Lewis, of whom Burfict said he models his game, is apt. But his big-picture development as a mature player has been a gradual process, learning self-control, becoming a leader instead of merely being a contact-seeking missile.

For Erickson, there's been a fine line between keeping Burfict from drawing too many flags while not muting his intensity, which is contagious for a defense.

"He's a boisterous guy on the field and in the locker room," Erickson said. "He is what he is. He's going to play with great enthusiasm and that sometimes gets you in trouble. During the spring, he was a real leader. He's matured."

And with the knee injury to first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden, Burfict is the leader the entire defense will turn to.

Burfict can get better, and not just by staying on good terms with the officials. He sometimes misses his gap assignments. He could improve his drops in pass defense. But the expectation is the junior will enter the NFL draft after this season, when he'll likely be a first-round selection.

But, as for this season, Burfict wants to change the subject from himself and from the yellow flags of the past. What does he want to talk about?

Said Burfict, "Everybody is talking about national championships."
So how did quarterback Steven Threet end up at Arizona State?

"You want the long story or the short story?" Threet replies.

The short story: Threet signed with Georgia Tech out of Adrian (Mich.) High School but opted to transfer to Michigan when the Yellow Jackets changed offensive coordinators. Then the Wolverines changed head coaches and offenses from a pro-style scheme to a spread-option under Rich Rodriguez, which didn't fit the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder's style in the least.

[+] EnlargeSteven Threet
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireSteven Threet hopes to win the Sun Devils' starting quarterback job.
D'oh.

The Sun Devils also have changed offensive coordinators since Threet arrived, but no matter. He's hopeful that three times -- and programs -- is the charm.

"I'm comfortable with this offense," he said.

Threet, now a junior, and true sophomore Brock Osweiler will be competing this spring to take the reins of an offense that can only get better in large part because it was mostly lousy in 2009, averaging just 18 points per game against BCS conference foes.

Osweiler (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) played in six games and started one -- an ill-fated, blowout loss at Oregon -- completing 43.6 percent of his passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Threet started eight games at Michigan in 2008, completing 51 percent of his throws for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed for 201 yards and two scores, so he's not a complete stiff in the pocket.

Both guys have some experience, but neither was anything close to lights out. Both have talent. Both have leadership skills. Both are tall.

And it's a straight-up competition with no leader at this point, at least officially. Coach Dennis Erickson said he flipped a coin to decide who would get the first snaps with the No. 1 offense when spring practices started Tuesday. Threet won the toss, by the way.

"Steven has experience playing in games, and Brock has a lot of physical talent," Erickson said. "So we're going to give them both a fair shot and see what transpires."

Erickson said he's looking for accuracy and good decision making in the Sun Devils' "new" spread offense, which will be run by new coordinator Noel Mazzone.

"New" in quotes mostly means that the scheme looks a lot like what Erickson did in the past when his offenses were humming -- spread the field with four receivers and control the game's tempo.

"The guy who wins the job is the guy who manages what we do offensively," Mazzone said. "You can't be just a flash player and be a good quarterback. The, 'Oh, man, he's got a strong arm -- did you see him throw that one deep?' So what? Can a guy move the football, keep us out of bad situations with down and distance and protect the football?"

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