Snapshot: Smokin' Joe Burnett

Deep into the offseason, continues its coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a look at another newcomer. Here's an inside peek at fifth-round pick Joe Burnett.

It was a hockey night in Pittsburgh, an early playoff game that became part of the Stanley Cup run, but for hardcore fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers it was a night to take a peek at "Smokin" Joe Burnett.

Burnett, at the time, was among a handful of mid-round cornerbacks the Steelers were courting, and that night opposite the Pens on TV ran an ESPN Classic game featuring Burnett and his Central Florida squad go up against rival South Florida from early in the 2008 season.

Burnett was a star. He returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, blocked a field goal, and returned three punts for 71 yards – one, a 35-yarder, set up a fourth-quarter touchdown that helped rally UCF to tie the game late before losing in overtime.

It was quite a peek at the 5-9 3/8, 192-pound cornerback, whom the Steelers later drafted at the end of the fifth round. Burnett was a four-year starter at UCF and intercepted 16 passes, after intercepting 31 at Eustis High School near Orlando, Florida. He clearly has sticky hands, as Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton pointed out when he invoked the name Antwaan Randle El on draft day, but it's Burnett's ability to return punts that the Steelers expect to be the first payoff on their investment.

Burnett was a four-time first-team all-conference punt returner and is expected to perform the task as an NFL rookie.

"He has a great chance to be our punt returner," said one enthusiastic member of the Steelers' staff. "He catches the ball and makes good decisions."

Burnett displayed those natural skills this spring and will enter training camp as the No. 1 contender to give Santonio Holmes the break the coaching staff wants for their best offensive deep threat. The staff, of course, first wants to see Burnett perform under the bright lights of the preseason.

"I was just asking Coach Ray about getting my shot. Is it the preseason?" Burnett asked. "Him and I are going to sit down and talk about it. But like you say, under the lights, I'm looking forward to it. I'm blessed to be at that position and have the ability to play it and I'm looking forward to returning kicks for the Pittsburgh Steelers."

Burnett returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in college. He returned one punt for a score in the Conference USA title game against Tulsa his freshman season, and repeated the trick in the same game against the same team as a junior. Last year he became the first player in 10 years to return a kickoff for a touchdown against Miami, but Burnett is remembered better by some fans for an obscene gesture he made to Miami fans that was captured on YouTube.

"That gesture that I did was out of my character," he said. "It was one where I was so caught up. We all make mistakes and I put it behind me. I apologized to both schools. I was caught up in the moment and it was out of my character. That was not me at all. If I could take it back, I definitely would."

Burnett is a bright and engaging young man who graduated in three-and-a-half years with a degree in Criminal Justice. He graduated as a member of the UCF honor roll.

"Very bright, very bright," was how Steelers veteran cornerback Deshea Townsend described him. But, Townsend cautioned, "It's still tough. A rookie at any position on this defense needs a season, maybe more before they really understand how this defense works."

And Burnett is working at one of the more difficult positions of all – nickel cornerback.

"That's always tough on first-year players, but he has good natural skills out there," said Townsend, who explained why the nickel position is so difficult:

"You have to learn the outside and then the inside, so it's kind of like double duty," Townsend said. "It makes for a tough couple of weeks when you're coming in. You just have to do so much. You have to play man, you've got to play your half, you've got to blitz. You've got so much on your plate instead of just learning how to squat and play a couple of zones. You've got a lot more responsibilities because you have to line people up, call strengths. The nickel's tough to learn."

Townsend, though, said that Burnett may not have to play nickel back, even if he's active on game day to return punts.

"Allen Rossum was a punt returner and he didn't play in the nickel package," Townsend said. "They know what they're doing here."

Burnett sees that. He's happy to be with the Steelers – the team, he said on draft day, for which he wanted to play.

"I love being here," he said. "When I came here not knowing what to expect, the guys showed so much love. They really want the younger guys to grow. They answer any question you have. No one gave me a cold shoulder or blew me away or told me I asked a stupid question. They made me feel more comfortable and welcome and made me believe I can do it here."

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