INDIANAPOLIS -- Vontaze Burfict, one of the top inside linebacker prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine, might already have something in common with James Harrison. At Arizona State, where he got into a fight with a teammate and was suspended for throwing punches in a game, Burfict was named the meanest man in college football.
Dont'a Hightower would like to have something in common with Harrison. Such as, play between him and LaMarr Woodley. The inside linebacker from national champion Alabama lists those two players among his favorite linebackers in the NFL.
Burfict and Hightower have questions to answer and something to prove at Lucas Oil Stadium, but for much different reasons. Burfict (6 feet 3, 248 pounds) wants to prove he is not the bad guy he is portrayed to be, especially after a senior season at Arizona State in which he battled teammates, coaches, officials and his weight. His test will come in interview sessions with coaches and general managers, not in physical drills.
Hightower (6-2, 265) will have his exam on the stadium floor today when linebackers run and work out at the combine. He has to show he is not bothered by a severe knee injury that ended his 2009 season.
The Steelers have something of a sense of urgency at inside linebacker and will likely be looking for one in the early rounds of the draft in April, perhaps with the 24th overall pick. They met with Hightower at the combine, but they need more research and are not sold on either player.
"I just know I'm the best linebacker in this draft; I know I can get the job done," Burfict said. "I played average [last season]. I could've played better. That's what hurt me at times. The coaches kind of messed me up. I didn't know if I would start a game or be benched. It hurt me, but I tried to fight through it."
Burfict got into a fight with a teammate that started on the practice field and carried into the locker room. Burfict said he was pushed first and retaliated by taking a swing at his teammate. He was also suspended for a game after throwing punches at two separate players in a game against Oregon State.
"It started in seven-on-seven," Burfict explained about the practice fight. "He was running a route, he hit me. We're not supposed to hit each other in seven-on-seven. He hit me and we had a little argument. We brought it into the locker room and started chatting about it. Then, he started rough-housing me and pushed me, and then my first instinct was to swing on him. Then everybody thinks I'm the bad guy for that because my instinct was to swing on him."
Perhaps, but words such as undisciplined, divisive, energy-draining and coach-killer are often used to describe Burfict. However, when asked at the combine to describe himself, he said, "I am a soft-spoken guy, shy sometimes, but when I am on the field I hate to lose and that aggression comes out."
There are no such questions about Hightower, who is considered the No. 2 inside linebacker in the draft behind Luke Kuechly of Boston College but could last until late in the first round. He said he is back to his pre-injury level and maybe faster than he was before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee four games into his freshman season in 2009.
Hightower returned in 2010 and had 69 tackles, but last season he anchored the nation's best defense, was a finalist for numerous national awards and was part of a national championship team.
"I feel a lot more fluid as far as my movements go," Hightower said. "I feel as fast as I've ever felt, even before the knee injury. I feel like the nutrition I've gotten at API has really helped me out as far as my lean mass and my body weight, so I'm definitely moving in the right direction."
Hightower interviewed with the Steelers and Ravens on Friday night and 12 more teams Saturday. He had another 12 interviews scheduled for Sunday night. The meetings with the Steelers and Ravens were particularly appealing because Hightower lists Harrison, Woodley, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs among the linebackers he follows.
He said he is aware the Steelers have a need at inside linebacker because James Farrior, their defensive captain, is 37. It is likely that Farrior or his backup, Larry Foote, will not return for the 2012 season.
"I've talked to a couple of [Steelers] scouts since I've been here and they're interested in me and I'm looking forward to sitting down and talking to coach [Mike] Tomlin."
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com ; twitter: @gerrydulac