Earlier in his Arizona State career, Gerald Munns tried to achieve the look of a menacing linebacker by sporting a Mohawk.
That hairstyle did not fit, even though Munns is 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds. Worse yet, it gave Craig Bray, the Sun Devils’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, too much ammunition.
“I got flak from him,” said Munns, a junior who attended Chandler Hamilton High. “He makes fun of how we look sometimes. So, I’m just going with me.”
Munns has ascended to the top of ASU’s depth chart at middle linebacker thanks to awareness, anticipation and aggressiveness. He solidified the spot in spring drills, when coach Dennis Erickson said Munns seemed to be involved in every big collision.
However, he has not built on that spring, said Bray, who typically holds little back when critiquing a player, whether on the practice field, in a meeting room or to a reporter.
“I’m kind of disappointed in Gerald right now,” Bray said. “He hasn’t taken that next step. That’s not to say that he isn’t good, but he should be making more plays and being more aggressive at the line of scrimmage.
“Gerald is one of our leaders and a key guy, but he needs to work on the little things.”
Munns’ leadership, read-and-recognition skills and nose for the ball have remained solid. But the ASU coaches have implored him to become more physical and attack the ball carrier and any blockers in between.
In short: Don’t look mean, be mean.
“I’m just trying to fix all of the little things — hands, feet, the things the coaches emphasize for us to get better,” Munns said. “I feel like I’m going in the right direction, but it’s hard to realize in camp. Your mind and body are beat, and it can be hard to focus on the little things.”
While Munns has the physical tools and smarts, he said he is working on developing the attitude of a playmaking linebacker, which over the years has been exemplified by Mike Singletary’s stare, Junior Seau’s fist pump and — at ASU — Pat Tillman’s infectious passion.
“It comes from being (ticked) off all of the time, and that has to come naturally,” Munns said. “You have to have that reckless abandon. When you’re out there and it’s live, you have to play like it’s your last play.
“You sometimes have to get ... whipped for a play or two. Then, your pride kicks in, and it’s time to go. That’s the point I need to work to, where I don’t need to get beat a couple of times; I’m just ready to go.”
If Munns develops a necessary mean streak, the fuel will be the conviction that — after a 2007 setback due to a knee injury — this is his time.
“I feel like this is my opportunity to take advantage of my health,” said Munns, who recorded 20 tackles (15 solo) and a sack last season. “I want to be on the field because I know I can play at a high level when I’m healthy.”
Last year, he impressed during training camp and in early-season practices to earn the starting assignment in the middle for ASU’s game against San Diego State on Sept. 15.
Munns was hurt on the second series of that contest. He missed four games and, upon his return, backed up Morris Wooten and Mike Nixon.
“He was making progress before the injury,” Erickson said. “He’s smart and tough, and it’s a matter of understanding what’s going on at middle linebacker. He runs the show. He can take it to another level.”
While the Sun Devils were solid on defense last year, the linebackers were exploited by Southern California and Texas. Such players as Trojans tight end Fred Davis and Longhorns tailback Jamaal Charles consistently eluded tacklers.
That fact could be magnified by the loss of Robert James, ASU’s most disrupting linebacker in 2007. However, Munns believes he has the tools to fill the void.
“The coaches tell us to trust our instinct and what our eyes are telling us,” Munns said. “Don’t think too much, just react. I feel that my instincts have been able to flow pretty easily. I’m getting to the ball and getting in position to make a lot of plays.”