Sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett flashed across the middle from his slot position. He was hit by a quick pass and then even faster crunched by a defender. The 173-pound Burnett crumbled to the ground only to immediately pop back to his feet.
“I've been taking a lot of hits this camp and I'm bouncing right back up, so that's a pretty good thing.”
During a one-on-one post-spring meeting, offensive coordinator Tee Martin told Burnett he needed to focus on getting bigger and stronger. After seeing redshirt junior Steven Mitchell Jr. struggle to stay healthy last season, Martin wanted more durable options in the slot. Mitchell is up to 200 pounds and hasn’t had to miss any time in fall camp while Burnett added 12-14 pounds of muscle in the offseason to his slender 6-foot frame.
Martin was quick to note that Burnett’s uniform no longer hangs limp from his pads: “I told him the other day, 'This is the first time I've seen some hamstrings and some guns in your uniform.’”
His ability to take a solid thump without hesitation has made Burnett even more of a threat this fall. Some of his defensive teammates have been impressed by his fearlessness and his ability to make catches in traffic, even when taking a hard knock.
“Chris [Hawkins] went up to him the other day like 'How do you keep holding onto the ball?' after [Hawkins] came up and hit him,” cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. “Deontay is just a special receiver, special guy. It's just great to see him get the opportunities that he's getting.”
Burnett is pushing Mitchell for the starter’s role as the slot receiver in three-wide sets. After a scrimmage in which Burnett scored twice while Mitchell had a ball go off his hands for an interception, Helton lauded the year-over-year maturation of Burnett, who had 10 catches for 161 yards as a true freshman.
"When Steven's down a little bit, you have no hesitation throwing him out there," Helton said, "knowing that he can make plays like he did today. There was just no second guessing."
Both players are listed as potential starters, separated by an “OR” on the recently released first depth chart of the season. Martin doesn’t see them as first and second team. “I see them as both playing ones. Both of them are capable of getting the job done.” If the team uses a four-wide-receiver formation, Helton said both players would be in the game.
Mitchell is a veteran, who has shown his explosive playmaking ability in the past when he has been healthy. But after a strong start to training camp, he hasn’t been consistent catching the ball. With Burnett, that is a non-issue. He spider webs any pass that comes into his area and the added weight is only helping.
If anyone knows about the virtues of getting thicker, it’s Mitchell, who weighed less than 180 pounds in high school. While he has always been good in space with the ball in his hands, he quickly learned that there was much more to the receiver position in college.
“When you get to college, the weight difference is much bigger,” Mitchell said. “People are much faster. A receiver's job is not just catching the ball. It's blocking, doing other assignments like that and when you add that weight on you that helps a lot.”
Burnett has quickly noticed the difference. His body responds differently to the big hits that slot receivers are sometimes susceptible to when going over the middle. But the hits aren’t something he ever consciously thinks about.
“Can’t look back. Just the next play mentality,” Burnett said when describing his performance. “Be true to who I am and make plays when they come my way. I never feel pressure, so just always keep that in mind. Stay calm when I run my routes and don't second guess. When the ball is in the air, just attack it and good things will happen.”
Not a USCFootball.com member? Sign up now and you'll get a seven day FREE trial! Join the Peristyle Family and get all the great information from USC football practices, Trojan football games, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium recruiting updates on USCFootball.com! Become a member today!
Follow Shotgun on Twitter: @ShotgunSpr