Tampa (Fla.) four-star athlete Juwan Burgess became a notable name on the recruiting trail two years ago.
Even before then, Burgess stared on offense, defense and special teams for Blake High School. His former head coach Darryl Gordon at Blake High School said, “He's just a true athlete that can cover the field. He already has good size, speed and athleticism. I can go on and on about this one and he's only just a freshman.”
However, transferring from Blake to Plant High School after his sophomore year, Burgess was forced to sit out his junior season. The fast rising sophomore sensation was out of sight and out of mind.
With no new highlights or tremendous camp performances to speak of, his stock flatlined. Schools like Florida, Miami and Clemson, who offered Burgess scholarships his sophomore year, were now on the fence about his potential. Burgess was just another junior with more scholarship offers than touchdowns or tackles to his name.
Burgess, who was once thought to be a can’t miss wide receiver prospect, is now projected by most to play safety in college. After his unofficial visit to USC in June, Burgess implied that, while USC is recruiting him as an athlete, his greatest potential may lie in the defensive backfield.
“I like the defensive scheme they have. What the defensive coach is teaching their defensive backs…just by watching the film and all that stuff, I realized that what he’s teaching them really carries over to the next level.”
At 6-foot, 185 pounds, Burgess is a tweener for USC. Not in the sense that his abilities hover between two traditional positions. Rather, if Burgess is to play safety, his fit schematically transcends two different coaching staffs.
Under Justin Wilcox the Trojans coveted safeties who, first and foremost, excelled in pass coverage. What some, such as John Plattenburg, gave up in size, they made up for in speed and ball skills. USC recruited safeties who could play in space and defend the pass.
Under Clancy Pendergast, USC has overtly recruited bigger, more physical safeties that can play closer to the line of scrimmage. Of the uncommitted safeties USC is actively recruiting, none is shorter than 6-foot-1. This harkens back to Pete Carroll’s recruitment of safeties like Taylor Mays, Kevin Ellison, Scott Ware, Darnell Bing and T.J. McDonald.
Burgess will not be confused with Darnell Bing, but on film, he will fly to the football without hesitation. Burgess is a smaller, yet still physically capable run stopper. He lacks the length that USC has been searching for at safety, but has the aggressive instincts needed to blow up plays at the line of scrimmage.
So physically, Burgess looks more like a Wilcox-type safety, yet his style of play fits in more with Pendergast’s mandate for aggressiveness near the line of scrimmage. That is if Burgess plays safety.
USC currently has seven safeties on scholarship, with Leon McQuay the lone graduating senior. USC also has seven cornerbacks on scholarship, with no graduating seniors. However, Adoree Jackson is already projected to leave a year early for the NFL Draft. In addition to that, incoming freshman Keyshawn Young could end up playing more offense than defense for USC.
The Trojans have a commitment from Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern safety C.J. Miller and Lynwood (Calif.) cornerback Wylan Free. While Free, 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, is a sure-fire cornerback prospect, Miller is a more ill-defined defensive back commit. Miller ran a 4.48 40-yard dash time at USC's Rising Stars Camp, but is still very raw as a football player.
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, both Miller and Burgess could check the box at safety or cornerback for USC. Their size seems more in line with what Clancy Pendergast wants in the defensive back field at cornerback, but neither has any significant experience or productivity at that position.
Expert opinion with Scout Florida Recruiting Analyst Corey Bender
Corey Bender is one of the few analysts who has seen Burgess play multiple times in person. When it comes to projecting where Burgess will play in college, Bender sides with the majority opinion.
“As a wide receiver, he does a good job adjusting to the ball in the air,” said Bender. “I think that’s one attribute that carries over to him playing defensive back, and most of his more recent offers came as schools started to project him as a defensive back.
“Even as a freshman, he was a kid that would go across the middle and make a catch knowing he was going to get hit. Juwan was a tough-nosed player even when people viewed him strictly as a receiver.
“On defense, he’s still fairly raw, but that physical nature and his anticipation bode well at safety. He’s a kid with that pop. He isn’t afraid to come up and put his shoulder down on a ball carrier. Really, he needs to improve on wrapping his arms because he liked to go for the big hit a little too much.
“Overall, I think he could play corner in college, but I think long term he projects best as a safety. He’ll run down hill and give run support, but he also reads and reacts well to the football. He does have that quick twitch and change of direction you want from a safety or corner that plays in the box. He’s smaller, but Juwan really fits the mold of a strong safety that is willing to lower his shoulder.”
Having not played football for a year, all eyes were on Burgess this spring when Plant High School played a full pad scrimmage against Armwood.
“The spring was big for him and he played well against Armwood,” said Bender. “He played against Tampa Jefferson as well. He played running back, wide receiver and safety, so he shows you can do a lot with him.
“When you seen him in person, he carries that 185, 190 pounds well. He has a thicker, more chiseled frame than you would think. He was a bigger, more physically advanced kid even as a sophomore.”
At The Opening Regional in Orlando this past spring, Burgess had pedestrian testing numbers. He scratched his 40-yard dash time, while posting a 4.49 shuttle run and a 28-inch vertical leap.
Those numbers play into the opinion that perhaps Burgess has peaked physically.
“He’s definitely gotten faster, but I think it’s because he uses his speed more efficiently now,” said Bender. “If you watch his film from his sophomore year, he didn’t really have that quick twitch.
“He didn’t have the separation speed he has now, but he also didn’t have much of a route tree either. He rounded his routes, and while you could tell how athletic he was, he did not utilize his athleticism to its fullest. So from that standpoint, he has improved. He’s a little more explosive than he was.”
USC has had their fair share of success stories recruiting the Tampa area. From former Plant three-star Mike Williams, to Berkeley Prep five-star Nelson Agholor, the Trojans dipped into the bay through the connection of former offensive coordinator and head coach Lane Kiffin, whose father, Monte, coached for the Buccaneers.
Now, USC assistant coaches Tee Martin and Keynodo Hudson are attempting to rebuild what once looked like a promising pipeline to a talent-rich area.
“I don’t know if Burgess’ commitment will have a big impact on this class,” said Bender. “A lot of the kids he knows are already committed elsewhere.
“I think it could open the door more for future classes though. Like Keyshawn Young and Jamel Cook in Miami, I think USC just needed someone to start it off. Ever since those two kids committed out of Miami, you have a lot of 2017 and 2018 kids talking about USC.
“Those kids always looked at USC as a big-time school, but I think most of them never thought about traveling that far. Now you have Young and Cook out there, so it makes it seem more real. They think, ‘Maybe I can make that move too.’ USC is trending more with the South Florida kids, and getting Juwan would help keep that going in the next few cycles. He’s a bigger name that has come up in this area through the youth football ranks, so it’s something the younger kids will take note of.”