USC finished strong on National Signing Day, closing out a number of big prospects, including a pair of five-star recruits from Gardena (Calif.) Serra, but they also pulled in an advanced scholarship (or blueshirt) commitment from receiver Deontay Burnett. At 6-foot, 170 pounds Burnett seemed destined for a redshirt season to bulk up and add some meat to his slender frame, but then in the second week against Idaho, Burnett was thrown into the fire and had a catch for 10 yards.
He’s worked his way up the wide receiver depth chart throughout the season. With Christian Tober and Isaac Whitney out with broken collerbones, Steven Mitchell Jr. unavailable against Notre Dame with a sprained ankle and Darreus Rogers leaving the game in the first half after re-aggravating his hamstring injury, the USC receiving corps needed someone to step up and Burnett took advantage of the opportunity.
“You know when I came in, I just had the mindset of going out there and just doing what I know that I can do and just being a football player,” Burnett said. “Being a student of the game. When I put all of that together, it just meshed out really good. They can tell I’m working hard, working hard to be on top and be the best.”
Burnett set career highs with three catches for 53 yards, including a career-long catch of 28 yards on an over-the-shoulder grab on the left sideline. The play could have been a potential touchdown, but the throw from Cody Kessler led Burnett just a little too much and he lost his balance after lunging to make the grab. Burnett called the catch “a surreal moment for me” and the biggest play of his very young career.
“He’s a competitor and he has a bright future. I like the way he’s playing,” USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin said. “I like the way he’s progressed. He’s a student of the game. He competes everyday and he has some good guys to learn from. He’s going to help us play and help us win a lot of games.”
An even more impactful play may have been a huge block that Burnett threw on fellow freshman Ronald Jones II’s 65-yard run that set up a short touchdown pass that put USC up 31-24 early in the third quarter.
“I play for my teammates. I really play for my teammates,” Burnett said. “I seen RoJo busting and I just tried to give him the best block I could to lead him to the end zone.”
Burnett said he soaked up the moment a bit as he celebrated the block in the middle of the field at historic Notre Dame Stadium.
“Oh man…I was excited.”
To severely understate it, this was a rough week for the Trojans, but through it all, Burnett said interim head coach Clay Helton kept the team together and made sure Burnett was locked in.
“Coach Clay is a good coach. He’s the one that kept me ready, checking up on me and seeing how I was, just staying the film room a little bit longer, studying my playbook and I just knew I could play with anybody on the field.”
The Trojans, as a team, unlike Burnett as an individual, missed out on an opportunity. Burnett said there was a “little bit of depression” in the locker room after the game. Rather than visible acts of strong emotion with tears or things being thrown, it was an introspective locker room.
“That means we fought hard,” Burnett said. “We won’t stop until the season is over. We won’t give up. We’re going to keep battling.”