CINCINNATI (AP) — Vontaze Burfict swooped in from the middle linebacker spot and closed on the ball carrier, then quickly pulled up to avoid any contact. He was practicing the thing he needs to improve upon most.
No cheap shots. No late hits. No losing control.
The linebacker from Arizona State didn’t get selected in the NFL draft last month in large part because of the way he plays. He was repeatedly penalized for personal fouls in college, despite his coaches’ insistence that he change. He also performed very poorly at the NFL combine and reportedly failed a drug test, marking himself a huge risk.
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It wasn’t surprising when Burfict went undrafted. The Bengals signed him for depth at linebacker, a low-risk move given his contract status.
One cheap shot and he could be gone. And he knows it.
“Yeah, that’s what I practiced on today,” Burfict said Friday after the first workout of rookie minicamp. “We didn’t have any pads on. You’ve got to be disciplined today. You have chances to hit somebody, but you let up. It just comes with practice.”
The Bengals are known for taking chances on players with trouble in their college careers. They took Chris Henry in the third round in 2005 despite his troubles at West Virginia. In recent years, they’ve changed their approach slightly, signing troubled players to low-risk deals.
Burfict fits the pattern. He was the Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year at ASU, starting nine games at middle linebacker. He quickly amassed a history of personal fouls — more than a dozen in his career, including one during a 2010 game in which he head-butted Oregon State’s Ryan Katz after the quarterback got up from a tackle and headed back to the huddle.
Last season, he led the Sun Devils in sacks but was benched in the second half of a game after getting two personal fouls and was used sparingly late in the year.
His poor performance at the combine sealed his reputation, but he wrote NFL teams a letter giving his side of the situation. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis showed an interest.
“I wrote a letter to pretty much all the GMs and coaches throughout the whole process,” Burfict said. “I guess he read my letter and he responded back to me, and I gave him my number and my agent’s number and he contacted my agent, and that’s how it happened.”
Lewis called him after the seventh round of the draft was completed and Burfict was still available. He was the most prominent of the undrafted college free agents signed by Cincinnati.
“Vontaze had a good start to things,” Lewis said after the workout Friday. “He’s obviously, for whatever reasons, become such a big story. The biggest thing for him is that he’s getting an opportunity here to prove he can make an NFL football team. Regardless of that, that’s the most important thing for him.”
Burfict was in good spirits after practice, which represented a new start after his disappointing combine performance in Indianapolis and his fall out of the draft.
“I’m ready to put some pads back on,” he said. “The combine wasn’t too good for me. To finally be in a defense and know where I’m playing is just wonderful.”
He declined to talk about his personal foul problems at ASU. Asked if there was a misconception of him in college, Burfict said, “I don’t know. I hear a lot about my off-the-field issues, and I haven’t been in trouble with the law. That’s a big thing that is missed.”
Burfict said he’s motivated by teams overlooking him in the draft.
“Not being picked, going undrafted — I have a big chip on my shoulder,” he said. “And I’m ready to hit somebody.”