Versatile frosh Burton developing into X-factor for Florida offense
Trey Burton has played quarterback, tight end, fullback and receiver this season
Five TDs on direct snaps last week drew inevitable comparisons to Tim Tebow
Burton's not Tebow 2.0, but he forces defenses to account for every possibility
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To defend Trey Burton, Florida linebacker Jon Bostic explained, a defense must first define Trey Burton.
On the depth chart Florida released before the season, the 6-foot-2, 222-pound freshman is listed as a co-backup at quarterback and as a backup tight end. Theoretically, these are Burton's positions. In practice, however, his role is more nebulous. Though Burton is quick to categorize himself as a quarterback, he has played quarterback, tight end, fullback and receiver this season. Making matters more difficult for the defender charged with assuring every offensive playmaker is covered, Burton can change positions within seconds of the snap.
"It's kind of hard ... to figure out who's who," Bostic said. "You think he's going to be a fullback, and he'll come out and he's at receiver."
Last week against Kentucky, the only place the Wildcats could consistently find Burton was in the end zone. Five times, Burton received direct snaps and barreled in for the score. On another play, he caught a touchdown pass. When the scoreboard finally went dark, Burton had broken Tim Tebow's school record for touchdowns in a game.
Comparisons inevitably followed. It was Tebow who, as a freshman in 2006, excelled as a short-yardage specialist, relieving starter Chris Leak when the Gators needed tough yards. Tebow's arrival breathed life into a spread offense that didn't seem to work with a pro-style quarterback at the controls. With Tebow in, the Gators could run between the tackles. The fact that he might still throw kept defenses honest.
Four years later, John Brantley has replaced Tebow as Florida's starter. Like Leak's, Brantley's skill set would seem more at home at Georgia or USC. For three games, Florida's offense sputtered. Other than the threat of the occasional long run from speedster Jeff Demps down the sideline, defenses had little to fear from Florida's running game. Teams such as this week's opponent, Alabama, can bottle up Demps with blazing sideline-to-sideline speed. That would leave them free to either blanket Florida's receivers or to throw the kitchen sink at Brantley. To expect anywhere close to similar production from Burton this week against Alabama is a pipe dream, but if Burton keeps developing, he can give the Gators the X-factor they need to force opposing defenses to account for every possibility.
The obvious similarities between Burton's 2010 role and Tebow's 2006 role have led to the pair being mentioned in the same breath plenty of times this week. That's a lot to heap on a freshman. Tebow was a key contributor to Florida's 2006 national title. Then he won the 2007 Heisman Trophy. Then he led Florida to the 2008 national title as a starter. This week, Burton has gotten a taste of Tebow-like fame. At one-point, his name was the sixth-most popular search term on Google. He also has taxed one particular social network. "I can't add any more friends on Facebook," Burton said. "For some reason, they have a limit."
But Burton is the first to admit he isn't Tebow 2.0, and he feels no pressure to duplicate Tebow's feats. "No pressure at all," he said. "I'm Trey Burton."
In fact, Burton probably is a more physical version of the collegiate Hines Ward, who played quarterback and receiver and whatever else Georgia needed him to play in the '90s. For a more recent comparison, Burton could look across the sideline last week to see Randall Cobb, the Wildcats' receiver/quarterback/kick returner/punt returner/holder. (Cobb is faster, but it would be tough to imagine him dragging two defenders into the end zone the way Burton did on one touchdown run.)
Besides, Tebow was anointed the future starting quarterback the moment he committed to Florida. If all goes as planned, Burton will never start a game at quarterback. Brantley is a junior. In February, the Gators will sign five-star Oviedo, Fla., slinger Jeff Driskell, the MVP of this year's Elite 11 camp. Like Brantley, Driskell has a cannon attached to his right shoulder. Burton, meanwhile, throws like an Olympic shot-putter. Of course, college football is littered with quarterbacks who weren't the chosen ones at their respective schools.
Besides, Burton doesn't care much for recruiting rankings. When Burton was at Venice (Fla.) High, Rivals.com allotted him just three stars. Monday, Burton addressed a media contingent that included reporters from the major recruiting sites. He remained polite, but he made his feelings clear. "I feel like the ratings people do for Rivals and Scout -- no offense to anybody -- but those don't mean anything," Burton said. "I just feel like as long as you go hard, go as fast as you can and work as hard as you can, you're going to be fine no matter what position you play, no matter if you're a five-star, a one-star or a two-star."
Florida coach Urban Meyer thought more of Burton than the recruiting services as well. Meyer offered Burton a scholarship when Burton was a high school sophomore. Still, Meyer had no idea the grandson of former Team USA sprinter and NFL player Lawrence Burton could play so many roles until Burton arrived in Gainesville in January.
"We had a feeling, because he's been to our camp forever," Meyer said. "We knew he had an awkward throwing motion. We knew he was a competitor. We knew he came from a great program. ... His football IQ is off the charts. You say, 'OK, Trey, we want you to do this.' And he does it."
Each day, Burton reports to three different assistant coaches. He meets with the fullbacks and tight ends, coached by Brian White. Then, at practice, he works with offensive coordinator/line coach Steve Addazio and quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler. Burton began the season on the kickoff coverage team, but he has since been moved to a backup role because he has so many other jobs. Burton's job behind center may take precedence over the others. His play last week forced the Wildcats into a more conservative defense, allowing Brantley to play his best game.
"It kind of throws teams off at times," Brantley said. "It's definitely what our game is, and it's good to have a guy back there who is able to run it. ... I like it. I'm a fan of it. I'm not going to be the guy running the ball like Trey does. But, you know what, that's a big part of our offense. We need to be able to implement that in our offense."
For his part, Burton doesn't care what position he plays. "Whatever Coach Meyer wants me to do," Burton said, "I'm willing to do it."
Maybe Burton is so willing because he wasn't a blue-chip recruit. He wanted to play for Florida, and he never even entertained another offer. He never visited another campus save for seven-on-seven tournaments at South Florida, which is 45 minutes from his house. In fact, Burton had never set foot in an SEC stadium besides the The Swamp until he played at Tennessee on Sept. 18.
That Burton is such a true believer helped the Gators on Dec. 26, when Meyer briefly resigned for health reasons. Burton immediately grabbed his cell phone and began re-recruiting the other players committed to Florida. He aimed to convince them that even without Meyer, Florida was the place they should play. "It definitely wasn't just me," Burton said. "We all had a part in it. I tried to do whatever I could. I tried to do my job to get everybody to stay." Burton is being modest. Meyer himself has credited Burton and fellow freshman Lynden Trail with helping hold the class together during the delicate weeks that followed Meyer's sudden resignation and equally sudden return.
Burton started the phone chain because he decided long ago that he would attend Florida on an athletic scholarship. Be it as a basketball player or a football player, he said, he was going to be a Gator. That statement prompted a question about whether Burton was good enough at hoops to be considered for a basketball scholarship. No, Burton said. His high school basketball career was brief and unspectacular. But the answer to the next question was quite telling. What position did Burton play as a hoopster?
"All five," he said.