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Oct. 21, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There are plenty of good football players who fit the parameters of the ideal height and weight for their position.
And then there are some good players who don't come out of a mold, like Julian Burnett of Georgia Tech.
At 5-feet-9 and 225 pounds, Burnett doesn't really have the dimensions coaches look for at any particular position, much less the inside linebacker spot he plays.
"He isn't the prototype in height and weight and all that," said Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson, "but when he gets out there (it is like) somebody forgot to tell him that because he flies around, he makes plays. He is a good player."
Burnett, a sophomore, has never let his lack of size slow him down. When he was younger, he would pester his older brother, several years his senior, to play with him and his friends.
"Sometimes they would let me play, sometimes they wouldn't," Burnett said. "I never let it get to me. I just enjoyed playing the game."
At Westside High School in Macon, Ga., he played some offense but really made a name for himself at middle linebacker, setting a school record with 546 career tackles. That brought recruiting interest from NC State, Wake Forest, Purdue and Iowa, among others. Georgia Tech won out because of its proximity to home.
Playing as a true freshman, Burnett first gained attention on special teams.
"On our kickoff coverage team, he was a terror, a missile," Johnson said.
Burnett played all four teams - kickoff and punt coverage as well as kickoff and punt returns. As the season progressed he showed enough on defense to earn a starting spot for three games, so he was removed from the kickoff and punt return teams.
"I felt like that was an opportunity to make plays," he said of special teams. "I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity the coaches had provided to me, to lead the special teams unit and make plays whenever I can."
He still delivers his missile-like performance on kickoff coverage, despite the extra attention he has been getting.
"Lately I've been getting a lot of double-teams on kickoffs," Burnett said. "Just because two people are coming at me, that doesn't make me slow down any because I do want to make a play."
That's a phrase Burnett uses a lot, and it fits with his desire for contact.
"I feel like I have a lot of love and respect for the game," he said. "I like to hit and the opportunity has been given to me. I don't take opportunities for granted; I just do what I can when I get on the field and try to make a play."
This season Georgia Tech switched to a 3-4 alignment under new defensive coordinator Al Groh. At first, the transition was difficult for Burnett.
"I kind of strayed away from the scheme early in the season," he explained. "Coach Groh took me aside, told me he thought I was a good player and if I would just run the scheme, he would help me. His door was always open."
Against Wake Forest, Burnett didn't start but made a career-high 10 tackles. That earned him a starting spot for the next two games, against Virginia and Middle Tennessee.
Now Burnett feels the 3-4 suits him well. Playing an inside spot allows him to seek out opposing runners, which is his strength. He is tied for fourth on the team with 33 tackles and moving up quickly on the stat sheet.
"I'm not the type of person to shy away from contact," he said.
He also has responsibilities in pass coverage, which he said was never his strong suit. But he has worked to get better and last week picked up his first career interception, against Middle Tennessee.
"It's tough for me," he said, "but I'm trying to be in the right places and do what I have to do."
Burnett doesn't worry about any perceived disadvantages because of his size.
"I just look at it as taking care of business," he said. "I don't think about my size, I don't think about how big the person across from me is. I just think about the contact."
His style is wide-open and, like most players in college, he relishes the physical side to the game. But recently there has been increased attention to the result of violent hits, particularly in the NFL. In college, a player at Rutgers suffered a severe neck injury, causing paralysis (his condition has not been updated in several days), after making a tackle covering a kickoff.
Does Burnett ever think about altering the way he plays when he sees and hears about those incidents? Basically, he said, those are things he can't control. He uses his religious faith before every game to ask for protection from injury and for strength to be able to do what he needs to do for his team.
"I know that guy (at Rutgers) didn't go into that game thinking that was going to happen to him," Burnett said." That's why I keep my faith in God, I keep praying and hoping something like that will never happen to me. You need to play 100 percent; (Just) because it happens to someone else, I can't hesitate."
Georgia Tech (5-2 overall, 3-1 in the ACC's Coastal Division) plays Clemson Saturday, annually a down-to-the-wire game. The Tigers have a good running game and a quarterback, Kyle Parker, who can make things happen in the passing game. It figures to be a busy afternoon for Burnett.
The keys to success, not only this week but for the rest of the season, are simple in Burnett's mind.
"Everybody focusing on what their job is and just going out there and having fun, playing the game," he said. "As long as we focus on what's ahead, we'll be all right."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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