TIGER KICKOFF: Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict's devilish side on display Friday night

Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 11:30 p.m. CDT; updated 1:27 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 9, 2011
Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, right, closes in on UC Davis quarterback Randy Wright in the Sun Devils' season-opening victory Sept. 1 in Tempe, Ariz.

COLUMBIA — Concerned about nodding off in front of the TV watching Missouri play Arizona State on Friday night?

The game doesn't start until 9:30 p.m. CDT, but no worries. Find No. 7 in the middle of Arizona State's defense. Fix your eyes on him. Forget about falling asleep.

You might as well be watching a suspense thriller. No one knows what Vontaze Burfict is going to do next.

Missouri faces a player in Burfict who is capable of making life miserable for the Tigers but only if he refrains from doing so to his own team first.

After being voted the Pac-10 conference defensive freshman of the year in 2009, the 6-foot-3, 252-pound linebacker tallied a team-high 90 tackles as a sophomore last year. Many of them were vicious, such as the hit against Idaho State quarterback Russell Hill. A hit like that against James Franklin, and the Missouri quarterback won't even be able to give his customary post-game congratulations to his opponent. 

This season, Burfict was named to the preseason All-America team. Some predict he will be the defensive player of the year. Everybody is watching him.

That includes the referees. Burfict had three personal fouls in a game against Washington last season. A late face mask followed by a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Stanford cost Arizona State the game. And a headbutt to Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz forced Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson to bench Burfict at the start of the team's next game.

“For every great story you have about Vontaze, another guy on another team will say he has one better,” Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck told the Sporting News.

The Arizona State media guide does not mention Burfict's propensity for disorderly behavior. It does, however, say that during this off-season Burfict grew "into a leader on the practice field and in the locker room."

That was written before Burfict's preseason fistfight with teammate Kevin Ozier in, of all places, the locker room.

His refusal to speak to the media adds to the Burfict enigma. Even his teammates balk at discussing Burfict's personality, declining to say who the "real" Vontaze Burfict is.

It raises the question: Do his own teammates know what to expect from him?

"(Burfict) has to put everything together physically, mentally and emotionally, and if he can do that, he can be one of the better players I've ever coached," Erickson said. "He hasn't done that over a long period of time."

He will have to this season after a series of setbacks to Arizona State's defense. Defensive end James Brooks left the team; senior cornerback Omar Bolden tore an ACL during a spring practice; and senior linebacker Brandon Magee suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon.

When Arizona State lost Magee, who had the second-most tackles last season and was a vocal leader among the Arizona State linebackers, it meant Burfict had to provide something that does not exactly fit with his on-field nature: stability.

Erickson said Burfict has filled the leadership void. His teammates agree he can handle the task.

"I feel like he's stepped up a lot more," wide receiver Jamal Miles said. "He's being more mature, not making as many mistakes and trying to make the other linebackers better. He's one of the leaders of our team right now."

Miles has the misfortune of sometimes running routes in the vicinity of Burfict. Vicinity is apparently a vague term when it comes to Burfict — Miles said he's always around the ball. For opposing players, during practices or games, the thought of Burfict waiting "right there for you" is hard to get out of one's mind.  

Note to James Franklin: On zone reads, run the other way.

Linebacker and captain Colin Parker said that while Missouri's spread offense is something they are not used to seeing, he felt confident the Sun Devils would be able to limit its effectiveness.

Burfict probably has something to do with that sentiment.

The scariest thing for Missouri? Burfict has gotten by on physicality and aggression. Parker said that while Burfict's physical talent is "just overwhelming for most," he has improved mentally.

Parker wouldn't reveal too much of Burfict's character, but he called him "quiet and goofy."

"It takes a bit to get to know him," Parker said. "He's nothing like his on-the-field persona."

Erickson goes no further than calling his star linebacker an interesting guy.

Regardless of who Vontaze Burfict is, Missouri and its fans will indeed have an interest in him Friday night.

Reporter Harry Plumer contributed to this article.

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