- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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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."