Dennis Dodd

( — They’ve talked — the NFL superstar and the flawed college prodigy — but Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson isn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“I don’t know if I can even talk about all that kind of stuff,” he said.

It’s not against NCAA rules that Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis and Vontaze Burfict have connected. It is, perhaps, a stretch to compare the two. Lewis is one of the NFL’s greatest linebackers, a modern-day Butkus with more range and definitely more rage. Arizona State’s middle linebacker has similar traits as a collegian but Lord knows Burfict isn’t perfect.

“They’re both fired-up guys,” Erickson said. “Ray is obviously very mature at this point in his life. They’ve talked. I wanted Vontaze to relate to what those great players were all about. That’s his idol, man. That’s his man. There aren’t too many better.”

Erickson had Lewis for the linebacker’s first two years at Miami. They bonded, stayed in touch. When the coach needed a favor, he knew where to go. Erickson has been Burfict’s coach for the rising junior’s first two years at Arizona State. When he was signed in 2009, the media guide called Burfict “the highest-rated football prospect ever to sign a letter of intent with ASU.” Erickson said he hadn’t seen anything like the 6-foot-3, 252-pound specimen in high school since Lewis.

The main difference now: We know where Lewis is headed, to the Hall of Fame someday. Burfict? Let’s wait until the next snap, shall we?

No matter what you hear about Burfict’s maturity this offseason he still has a sizeable reputation to paint over. At best, he has been undisciplined during a career sprinkled with honors. At worst, he has been a cheap-shot artist.

Burfict has always been one of those scary-hard hitters. The struggle is keeping him from going over the line.

We’ll see if any of Lewis’ advice has stuck to the drywall in Burfict’s mind. That’s what The Conversation was about. That’s what 2011 will be about.

“You’ve got to compare yourself to the greatest,” Burfict said. “I compare myself to him.”

For now his talent is winning by a nose. The Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2009 and 2010 All-American (Sporting News) is the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. A likely preseason All-American and definite NFL prospect, Burfict still has to fulfill that promise.

“It’s time for a change around here,” he said.

It would be nice if Burfict led the Sun Devils to a Pac-12 South Division title, chipped in with 80 or so tackles (he has 159 in two seasons) and intimidated opponents … the right way. Burfict is most infamous for head-butting Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz last season. Erickson benched him for the next game against Washington. Well, for 18 minutes, at least until Burfict entered in the second quarter of a 10-point victory.

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“One thing they all like to do is play,” Erickson said.

“He was immature in a lot of ways when I recruited him,” the coach added, “like a lot of them. Academically, he had to do some things to qualify. …

“I thought he started to mature as the season went on. Obviously, early in the season he had some bad episodes that were costly for us. … People were starting to ding him a little bit and he wasn’t mature enough to handle that.”

With an injury to star cornerback Omar Bolden, Burfict has become a leader, making teammates accountable in the weight room. Those who bust their behinds there are made part of the Hard Hat Program. Last year 48 Sun Devils were, as the school puts it, honored because they were “self-motivated, a competitor, committed to personal and team excellence, dependable, accountable and disciplined.” Burfict wasn’t one of them. This year he didn’t miss a session and became a Hard Hatter.

“He’s done whatever we asked, now he’s got to carry it into fall camp,” Erickson said. “You’re going to get tested, people will test him. We all know that.”

“I’ve got friends all over the Pac-12,” Burfict said. “They told me, ‘Yeah, we baited you.’ It’s all in the game I guess you could say.”

Has it worked?

“No, not really.”

We’ll see. There is a lot to prove in Tempe this season. Nineteen starters return for a team that is the trendy pick to win the Pac-12 South. But the Sun Devils haven’t had a winning season since 2007. They’ve lost 22 of their past 37. Four losses last season came by four points or less. There is a lot of built-up frustration.

There is only one right way to release it for Vontaze Burfict — and everyone will be watching.

“I would compare him in college [to] a little like Ray Lewis,” Erickson said, “but he’s a long way from Ray Lewis. Ray plays the game the way it should be played.”


For more from Dennis Dodd, check him out on Twitter: @dennisdoddcbs


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