Arizona State defensive coordinator Craig Bray is not the type of football coach to hold his players' hands and sing "Kumbaya."
"You've just got to learn to listen to the message," linebacker Colin Parker said. "(He) might add in a couple extra words here and there, but you've got to see past that . . . just try to take it as constructive criticism."
Parker has looked past his fair share of choice words, but lately Bray's message has been sprinkled with compliments.
"Unbelievable kid with character, work ethic and intelligence," Bray said of Parker. "Nobody else could do what he's done."
After two games, the senior linebacker leads the Sun Devils in tackling. He had 11 last week in a victory over then-No. 21 Missouri. Parker is tied for eighth place in the Pac-12 with 16 tackles, and his 13 solo tackles are tied for second.
But that's not what Bray is talking about. Parker blew out his ACL in both his junior and season seasons at Hamilton High School in Chandler, enduring agonizingly long rehabilitations. Now he's starting for the nation's 22nd-ranked team as Arizona State hits the road to play at Illinois on Saturday afternoon.
"It is kind of weird to sit here and think back on where I was and where I'm at. It's not exactly where I was thinking I was going to be," Parker said. "It took, honestly, almost three years before I felt like I could go out and compete for a position on the field."
When Parker injured his knee the second time, an MRI was inconclusive, so doctors told him the surgery could go one of two ways once they opened up the knee in the operating room.
"It could either be a scope or a full-blown procedure," said his dad, Anthony Parker, who played cornerback at Arizona from 1984-87 before moving on to the NFL. "Colin didn't know until he woke up in a hospital bed that it was going to be the latter. It was devastating for all of us. I remember wheeling him out in a wheelchair so he could watch his team play, and it was tearing him up inside. He had tears in his eyes."
Anthony Parker suffered a similar injury his senior year at Arizona State at a time when surgical procedures were not as advanced as they are today. Yet he still played 10 NFL seasons for Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. That fact helped Colin remain upbeat.
"He could talk me through situations where I'd get down on myself and start doubting my abilities," Colin said. "He could help me keep it in perspective."
Parker had another concern, however. He was recruited to Arizona State by former coach Dirk Koetter, who was fired after the 2006 season. Neither father nor son knew if new coach Dennis Erickson would honor the scholarship of an injured player he never had watched, never recruited and who might not fit his system, particularly because he was recruited as a safety.
"I reached out to ASU, and the institution stood behind us," Anthony Parker said. "That meant a lot."
Parker didn't inspire confidence in the coaching staff as he learned how to retrain his muscles, regain his confidence and adapt to a new position.
"He couldn't run out of his own shadow," Bray said. "I always gave him (guff) because he didn't get the genes his dad got. He's wearing somebody else's."
Parker never took the comments to heart. He was used to that sort of motivation from former Hamilton coach John Wrenn, now Arizona State's assistant athletic director for football operations. Wrenn used to joke that Parker "was the worst football player in the history of football."
Parker was competing for a starting job this season, but when senior Brandon Magee went down with a season-ending Achilles' injury in an August scrimmage, he knew he had to take on a greater role. That responsibility was compounded when his teammates elected him captain.
"He's been our most consistent defensive player without a doubt," said Bray, who expects Parker to be the team's leading tackler all season, ahead of even All-America candidate Vontaze Burfict.
"It's an indicator that he's reading his keys -- that he's where the ball is," Bray continued. "The guy that should be the leading tackler is your middle backer because he gets to run free, sideline to sideline. Colin's just on one side of the field. But Colin's disciplined. He sees what he's supposed to see."
Bray compares Parker to former Sun Devils standout Mike Nixon.
"Nixon had no business playing linebacker, and he looked awful doing it," Bray said. "But the guy made plays because he saw the game so well. You couldn't fool him, and Colin's getting to that same place."
As for Erickson, he's happy he kept a scholarship that felt more like a blind date.
"It's hard to have enough accolades for the guy," Erickson said. "He's everything you want. He's smart, he works hard and he was raised in the game, so that's a big help.
"Having been here five years and gone through all the things he's gone through with the injuries, he's just really taken advantage of everything."