SnapShot: Dantonio Burnette

Long before he'd ever heard of Bill Cowher, let alone break his tackles records at North Carolina State, Dantonio Burnette was known as Thunder Dan. <br><br> Long before he punctuated his legacy of goal-line tackles with the play that turned around the last Gator Bowl, he was known as Thunder Dan.

And, yes, long before he came to be regarded by some as the best defensive player in the ACC in 2002, he was known as Thunder Dan.

"So, you've heard of Thunder Dan," Burnette said with a satisfied smile. "They started that way back in high school, my sophomore year. I made a big hit at practice and everybody started calling me that name. My friend said, ‘Man you bring the thunder.' And so they started calling me Thunder Dan and it stuck, all the way up through college."

At a too-short 5-feet-10 and a too-light 235 pounds, Dantonio Burnette came out of North Carolina State with a better reputation among fans and his coaches than he did among NFL scouts. That's the reason he drew enough votes to finish second to E.J. Henderson as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year but finished about, oh, an entire draft behind Henderson last April.

An undrafted free agent, Burnette carved out a name and catchy nickname by "making several thunderous hits that could be heard in the upper reaches of any stadium," according to his team website. "As Georgia Tech, Maryland and Notre Dame found out, a measly yard often seemed like a mile when Burnette would propel himself through the air like a cruise missile and drive ball carriers backwards."

"The goal line is really where I made a name for myself," Burnette said a few weeks ago at Steelers minicamp. "Against Georgia Tech I had two big hits that knocked them back and, on the third, a dude tried to jump over the top and I came in and nailed him from the side."

Against Notre Dame, in the last Gator Bowl, Burnette knocked Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holliday out of the game with a hit at the goal line. Notre Dame was holding a 3-0 lead and had driven to N.C. State's two-yard line on its second possession. On second down, Holiday rolled right, saw an opening and jumped over a fallen blocker to cut back inside. But Thunder Dan was coming from the inside, and his hit separated Holiday's shoulder.

"When I hit him I heard him groan," Burnette said. "He groaned when I stuck him in the ground. He tried to come back up and he went back down. I knew he was out then. That was the turning point of the game."

With its quarterback out, Notre Dame would score only six points, its low in 25 bowl games. The 28-6 victory gave N.C. State a school-record 11 wins. Burnette's play was dubbed by the Associated Press as "perhaps the hit that signifies the Wolfpack's arrival as a big-time program."

Yet, it didn't mean enough to the NFL. Burnette signed with the Steelers as a free agent.

"What a lot of people were saying was lack of height," he explained. "A lot of people said I was too short but I put up 164 tackles, 2 sacks, 21 tackles for loss last year. I mean my stats speak for themselves. All I wanted was a chance and Coach [Bill] Cowher and his staff gave me a chance and I want to make the best of it."

Cowher, of course, played at N.C. State and held the single-game tackles record with 24. Cowher did it twice – before Burnette was born. Burnette tied the single-game record and passed Cowher's career mark and is second to Levar Fisher with 471 tackles. Burnette's 40 tackles for loss is fourth all-time in the ACC.

"My coach talked about him a lot. Coach [Chuck] Amato coached him," Burnette said of Cowher. "He talked about how hard of a worker he was and that's the same mentality I bring to the game. I'm just a hard worker. Plus they've got pictures of him all over the building, hitting people. He's a hard-nosed guy."

Amato coached linebackers at N.C. State when Cowher played. And as head coach, Amato made Tuesdays goal-line day at N.C. State. Goal-line days are always big days at the Steelers' training camp, and Burnette can't wait.

"That's the part of the game I excel in, hitting and playing the run," he said. "On this level you've got to really step up your pass coverage because the quarterbacks and receivers are so smart, but like I said playing the run is the strong part of my game, especially short yardage."

Burnette has had his moments covering the pass. His interception against Georgia Tech would've turned the game around, if not for an ensuing offensive fumble. Also, his end-zone interception of Chris Rix on the game's final play sealed a 15-9 win over Florida State last year.

"It was a storybook ending," Burnette said.

Is this a storybook beginning?

"It don't faze me. I can tell you that," Burnette said of a camp that begins in three weeks. "I'm ready for any challenge that comes in front of me."

Jim Wexell

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