The bye week always seems to come at the right time for Southern California wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
Burnett parlayed extra reps in practice as a freshman into strong performances when the Trojans were beset by injuries last season. Now Burnett gets extra time to prepare after starting slot receiver Steven Mitchell tore his ACL in the win at Arizona last Saturday.
Burnett and Mitchell had been sharing that role, producing nearly identical totals in receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns. The sophomore has been especially effective during USC’s current three-game winning streak, making 13 receptions for 138 yards and one touchdown.
“We’re very fortunate since Deontay has played so well all the way back since the Notre Dame game last year, the way he has progressed,” coach Clay Helton said. “He is playing great football right now and will be pushed up in that starting role.”
Working with Sam Darnold last year allowed Burnett to develop a rapport that has carried over after the redshirt freshman was promoted to starting quarterback last month. Burnett set career highs in receptions and yards receiving against Arizona State and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass against the Wildcats after Darnold broke the pocket to buy more time.
That kind of awareness and a massive catch-radius are among Burnett’s best attributes, first noticed by offensive coordinator Tee Martin when he was recruiting star cornerback Adoree Jackson. Martin saw Burnett go toe-to-toe with Jackson in practice. What followed was even more impressive.
“After practice they would do all this flipping, backflips, catching the ball with one hand, who could throw the ball the farthest,” Martin said. “It was all this freaky stuff that all of them would do after practice. And Adoree, you know the stuff he can do, and Deontay was like right there. I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ It got my attention and I started recruiting him from that point on.”
But USC didn’t have a spot for Burnett in its 2015 recruiting class, its first coming off scholarship reductions handed down by the NCAA in the Reggie Bush case. Burnett committed to Washington State before USC gave him a chance to join the program as a blueshirt, an un-recruited player who can receive a scholarship after arriving on campus.
“We were out of scholarships and Coach (Steve) Sarkisian asked me if there was any guy I needed or wanted and Deontay was the first name,” Martin said. “We were just lucky that he bought in to wanting to come to USC any way he could.”
“Once I got this offer, this scholarship, I told myself I was coming here because this has always been my dream school,” Burnett said. “The best come to USC.”
Burnett impressed during a bye week last October, leading to extensive playing time against Notre Dame and California. Burnett had 82 yards receiving against the Golden Bears, the same team he will face in his first start on Oct. 27.
“It was exciting getting to show the coaches why I came to USC and beginning to put together film so they could see I could play and hopefully make plays on Saturdays,” Burnett said.
Burnett wants to refine his consistency during this bye week, but anyone walking past Loker Stadium in the next few days might get a glimpse of the athletic feats that initially caught Martin’s attention. Burnett plans to challenge Jackson to a catch contest this week, though his motivations go beyond one-upmanship.
“I always tell myself if you practice the hardest catches that they come easy in a game,” Burnett said.