When Vontaze Burfict arrived at Arizona State in the summer of 2009, defensive coordinator Craig Bray saw a player rife with exhilarating and exasperating contradictions.
He showed so many signs of incredible potential, Bray said. But one of the other things that I noticed right away was that effort wasnt a habit. I think things came so easy for him in high school that he really didnt learn to go hard every play.
Bray and the rest of coach Dennis Ericksons staff hoped they could instill that habit and help Burfict realize his immense potential. But on Saturday, Burfict completed what ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called a historic fall from grace.
Considered first-round material as recently as three months ago, Burfict was not among the 253 players selected in the seven rounds of the NFL Draft this weekend. Instead, Burfict will sign a free-agent contract with the Cincinnati Bengals, attempting to enter the NFL through the back door.
Im not surprised, Bray said. Not based on his body of work last season and all the other things that happened this spring.
The thing I always felt was missing was that inner passion and drive and love for the game. Theres a lot of guys with a lot of talent, but guys who make it at that level dont make it on talent alone.
Like his Arizona State team, everything looked rosy for Burfict back in September. The Sun Devils were coming off their first win over USC in 12 years, a game in which Burfict was the playmaker and intimidating presence everyone envisioned when he arrived in Tempe three years earlier.
He intercepted USC quarterback Matt Barkleys screen pass with a great read and a great show of athleticism, and he intimidated Barkley into some uncharacteristic wildness. His emotional play sparked the best performance the Sun Devils turned in all season, forging hopes of the programs first Rose Bowl berth since 1997.
Then it started spiraling south. ASU lost its final five games to lose control of a BCS bowl, then the Pac-12 South Division. Burfict resumed his undisciplined ways, getting pulled from the Cal game after a rash of personal fouls and then getting into hot water again before the Las Vegas Bowl.
Following the season, he declared early for the draft, and most projections had him going in the first round. But those who had watched him all season expected his stock to plummet once he reached the scouting combine.
He ran a pathetic 5.08 seconds in the 40, the slowest time of any linebacker at the combine, and thoroughly underwhelmed coaches and GMs in interviews. Reports soon surfaced that he had failed a drug test, and while he never confirmed the report, he did admit to Scout.com this week that he had used marijuana.
In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, a photograph displayed Burficts ample and soft midsection -- the product of a poor diet and poor workout habits that had troubled Bray all along.
Slowly, the national media became aware of Burfict's many red flags.
"Everything I heard from people at Arizona State -- he sucks the life out of your football team," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said during ESPNs coverage of the draft.
He was right. ASU media relations members were afraid of him. Media members werent allowed to talk to him. Quarterback Brock Osweiler spoke cautiously and dispassionately about him. And the coaching staff, Bray admitted, bore large responsibility for his legendary lack of discipline.
Not holding him accountable like we held everybody else accountable goes away from my core beliefs, Bray said. It was a fault of the whole staff, but I was the leader of the defense, so its my fault as much as anybodys.
Everybody needs discipline. Everybody needs direction, and when those things go awry, it will affect you at some point down the road.
Brays son, Trent, then the programs linebackers coach, spent a lot of time trying to work with Burfict.
We tried a lot of tools, like having big-time players in the NFL talking to him, Craig Bray said. We had so many people tell him, 'If you dont change, every week it will cost you more and more.'
Its unfortunate that the hype that followed him without him really doing anything hurt him as well. Sometimes young kids like that -- with the background he had and not having a really strong family life -- sometimes they dont know who to listen to, and sometimes its the wrong people.
Bray said he never saw improvement in Burficts game from the time he was a freshman through last season.
He wasnt a big technician. He didnt like doing drill work and technical work, and all these things hurt him, Bray said. Sometimes he was quiet and listened to us and would come out to practice and make us think wed finally got to him.
But then hed revert to old habits. He would say he was going to do all these things like be a leader, then our self-proclaimed leader would miss workouts and do other things leaders dont do.
By the time scouts started dissecting his game, it was too late to salvage his plummeting draft stock.
"I put his tape on with absolutely zero preconceived notions,'' NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said during a teleconference. "I watched three tapes and really didn't like him as a football player. I think he's a non-draftable kid. For me, he's a free agent."
That is exactly where Burfict finds himself now. Burficts agent did not return phone messages left for him on Saturday, but Burfict did speak briefly after the draft.
I know that Im a first-, second-round pick, and the Bengals got a steal in the draft because nobody drafted me, Burfict told The State Press, ASUs student newspaper.
Bray still thinks Burfict can change has ways, realize his potential and have a successful NFL career, but not if he doesnt start with one very important step.
Sometimes a kid finally starts to see what hes thrown away, but the key is: Does he admit why and how he threw it away? Bray said. If he does, then you can change. But in our three years working with him, he never saw what we told him and he never saw who he really was.