Burney ready for a breakout season

Aug 16, 2019 | 0 comments

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On a defense with two lockdown corners, a deep stable of pass-rushers and a senior stalwart at middle linebacker, Amari Burney has a chance to be the Gators’ biggest defensive playmaker.

As a reserve safety and special teams contributor, the then-freshman made 11 tackles and a sack last season. With Vosean Joseph off to the NFL, UF moved him to weakside linebacker – or “money linebacker,” as they like to call it – in the spring. He’s the projected starter there, and he’ll add an element of speed that’s been missing in the Gators’ linebacking corps the past several years.

His elite speed and quickness will allow him to track down runners on the perimeter and cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Florida struggled to cover tight ends last season, particularly in a three-game stretch against Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina. Burney could be the solution to that problem. If he gets his hands on the ball, there’s a good chance that he catches it too, as he played some wide receiver in high school.

Perhaps his greatest asset to the team is his versatility. With depth becoming thin in the secondary, he’s taking second-team reps and attending meetings at Star, Florida’s version of the nickelback. He’s more than just a backup there, too; he could play Star in a special package based on what the opponent is trying to do. He could also move back to safety if needed, though he said he isn’t practicing there right now.

“Great weapon,” middle linebacker David Reese said. “He could be a linebacker or a defensive back. When you get a guy like that, that is versatile like that, you can put him in many different situations. You can bring him on blitzes or put him in coverage and just shut somebody down for the whole game.”

Burney said he likes playing multiple positions, and it’s not that hard for him to go back and forth between linebacker and Star because they’re similar in a lot of ways. The biggest difference is that he typically covers tight ends and running backs at linebacker and slot receivers at Star.

The biggest adjustment for him in practice has been getting used to the way each position is taught, he said.

“Just different coaching styles, teaching me different techniques and things like that,” he said. “In the linebacker room I’m mainly working in the box, shuffling, things like that. In the safety room (the Stars work with the safeties), it’s backpedaling, getting out of breaks.”

Another challenge for him is remembering what position he’s playing on a given play and who he’s supposed to cover, he said.

“They tell me when to go in, and, you know, I just got to reset my mindset whichever position I’m in because I might be doing something different on this play than I am at Star,” he said. “So, I just got to reset it and just study the playbook hard and know what I’m doing.”

He said his biggest focus during fall camp was improving his coverage skills at Star. To better prepare his body to take on the wear and tear of playing a full season at linebacker in the SEC, he bulked up to about 230 pounds over the off-season. Of course, to get bigger, you often have to sacrifice a little bit of speed., so he’s working on getting better at covering speedy slot receivers at his new weight.

While he played safety in high school, Burney said there’s been very little carryover to playing in the secondary at UF.

“In high school, I had no technique,” he said. “It was different in high school. I just stood in the middle and just played the ball and made tackles, things like that. But coming here, Coach [Ron] English and Coach [Christian] Robinson, they both put me in the film room when I first got here and [are] showing me my footwork, things I needed to work on in the offseason.”

In addition to his two position coaches, he also has a coach on the field next to him that he can turn to for help. Reese knows the defensive scheme inside and out, works extremely hard and is one of the most respected players on the team.

“He’s in the front of the film room coaching us up sometimes,” Burney said. “Coach will stop talking and just ask David Reese to tell us what we got and things like that. He’s a big help.

“He’s like the professor in the film room. Everything he tells us, we know he’s right. We don’t second guess him or anything like that. Whatever he tells you, that’s what we’re playing.”

He said Reese occasionally tests he and the other young linebackers. When they ask Reese in the film room about what they’re supposed to on a given play, Reese will sometimes respond with, “You should have known.” He wants the young players to know the defense themselves and not have to rely on him for all of the answers because, after this season, he won’t be around anymore.

“I want them to learn for themselves,” Reese said. “I just don’t want it to be easy because they’re all competing also. So, they don’t need cheat codes all the time. If they’re in with one person, they need to talk, get to know each other.”

Burney said he also learned a lot about the mentality it takes to play linebacker from Joseph last season.

“Just his mentality attacking the ball,” he said. “See ball, get ball. And just watching him play, seeing the way he got off blocks, things like that. Seeing the way he moved around in the box, just trying to put that into my game.”

Burney said playing primarily special teams last season wasn’t that hard for him to deal with. He’s had to prove himself throughout his football career, so he wasn’t expecting anything to be handed to him. He just wanted to do well on special teams so he could let the coaches know that they could depend on him and learn the defense better so he could step into a larger role in 2019.

That formula couldn’t have played out much better for him. This season is shaping up to be Burney’s breakout.

Tags: Player

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