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NFL Draft: Ben Burr-Kirven facing all-too-familiar stigma

By VYTAS MAZEIKA | vmazeika@bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News Group
The Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, a former Sacred Heart Prep star, led the nation in tackles but lacks prototypical size. 
A year ago, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. That won’t be the case next week in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ben Burr-Kirven and Vita Vea, products of Sacred Heart Prep and Milpitas, respectively, left the Bay Area to play college football at Washington.
A prototypical NFL prospect, Vea is a 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive lineman that went 12th overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018.

Burr-Kirven is 6-0, 230-pound inside linebacker that led the nation in tackles this past season but isn’t quite the physical specimen scouts drool over.

“I don’t see any reason to be upset about that,” Burr-Kirven said last week. “I mean, Vita was a once-in-a-kind-of-generational guy. I know I’m undersized and all that stuff, so I’m not surprised at not being in first-round mock drafts. It doesn’t really bother me that much. Just getting a chance to get drafted and hopefully play is more than enough for me.”

Burr-Kirven more closely mirrors a seventh-round pick out of Arizona State that claimed the 1997 Pac-10 defensive player of the year trophy as an undersized linebacker at 5-11, 202 pounds.

That would be Pat Tillman, a Leland graduate that left the NFL in 2002 to enlist in the U.S. Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April of 2014.

“Pat Tillman is one of the best stories to come out of this Bay Area,” Burr-Kirven said. “Obviously sad story losing his life, but I think in terms of the football side of it, definitely he’s kind of on the same boat in between safety and linebacker.”

He added: “There’s definitely similarities in terms of the play style.”

A three-star recruit, the Menlo Park resident led SHP to a trio of Central Coast Section titles.

The two-time Mercury News player of the year (2013, ’14) claimed a NorCal Division III trophy as a junior, then capped his high school career with an undefeated season by scoring both touchdowns in a 14-0 shutout of Bellarmine at San Jose City College in the 2014 CCS Open Division championship game.

“I think the potential that he has is tremendous,” said Pete Lavorato at the time, his former coach at SHP who made a bold prediction five years ago.

“I would even go out on a limb, and I know that probably this is maybe not smart to do — and you never know what will happen and I pray that he’s 100 percent healthy all the time — but I really, truly believe that Ben is the kind of kid that can play at the next level, even beyond college.”

And while Burr-Kirven couldn’t secure a scholarship offer from Stanford, he left an imprint.

“There is no hesitancy in his game at all,” Stanford coach David Shaw said before playing Washington in 2017. “He sees it and he goes full speed. The guy makes tackles behind the line of scrimmage, at the line of scrimmage and down the field.”

At the NFL Scouting Combine in March, Burr-Kirven ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds — sixth-fastest among the linebackers invited to Indianapolis.

He also tied for 11th in the vertical leap (34.5 inches) and the broad jump (121.0).

“You spend two months training for that and it’s kind of like a meat market,” Burr-Kirven said. “You get to see all these doctors, all these interviews and the on-field testing. But after that ends, it’s a lot of downtime and you’re working out on your own to stay in shape and be ready to go once it’s time to play again.”

In this evolving era of football with air-raid attacks and read-pass option schemes, Burr-Kirven sees himself as a weak side linebacker, where his football IQ and instincts can maximize his agility and coverage skills.

En route to a Pac-12 championship and spot in the Rose Bowl this past season, Burr-Kirven piled up 176 tackles (94 solo), along with 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, six pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles.

But questions about his size prevail, as evidenced by this quote on his NFL.com profile from one scouting director for an NFC team: “That defensive line did a great job of protecting him so he could run around and make a bunch of plays. He’s a fun player to watch, but I don’t think the production translates.”

Asked for an NFL comparison, Burr-Kirven thought about it and came up with a 2014 third-round pick by the 49ers.

“It’s tough being able to pick people because I run a little bit different,” he said. “But, I think, Chris Borland when he was on the Niners before he retired was pretty similar. Smaller guy, shorter guy. I think he did a lot of things that I try to emulate.”

Burr-Kirven plans to return home for the NFL Draft and train at his high school alma mater. Maybe he’ll turn on the TV if and when he gets the much-awaited call he’s anticipated since he was a little boy.

Today’s he’s no longer little, but is he big enough?

In a matter of days Burr-Kirven will find out which NFL team might fulfill his dreams.

“There’s really no way to know so it’s better to leave an open mind,” Burr-Kirven said. “It’s not something I’m really worried about. At the end of the day you’re just going to play football.”

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