Last week we looked at USC cornerback Nickell Robey in; The Nickell Robey Story and his life-changing situation that occurred before he attended USC.
Also noted in Rick McMahon’s 10 Toughest Players is today’s story on junior cornerback Tony Burnett.
Last season USC only had between 69 and 71 scholarship players on its football roster, which was well below the 85-scholarship limit due to the free transfer rule for juniors and seniors, as well as top recruits being released from their letters of intent. Additionally, USC redshirted 12 players, which left only 40-plus scholarship players at their disposal during most games, which showed with their 8-5 record due to no depth.
With this depletion USC had to look for non-scholarship players that could help the team.
Enter then 6’1", 195-pound sophomore Tony Burnett, who has taken quite the path to get to where he is today.
Like Robey, Burnett is also a cornerback, but when he stepped on the field at USC, he didn’t even play that position.
Before last season and even halfway through it, most people outside of the coaching staff and players had never heard of a player named Tony Burnett.
Now most USC fans know of Burnett and his story, but his name doesn’t carry outside of the USC campus like a Barkley, Perry or Woods would.
Starring at Mayfair High School, Burnett played football as a defensive back/wide receiver. In his senior season he had 18 tackles and seven interceptions on defense with 15 receptions for 304 yards (20.3 avg) and four touchdowns on offense.
Football though wasn’t his sport; track and field was where he earned All-CIF, All-State, All-Conference and Long Beach Press Telegram Dream Team first team honors while at Mayfair.
Burnett attended L.A. Southwest College in 2009 strictly for track and field. During his senior season of high school, track and field was his main focus with football secondary, which resulted in little to no recruiting attention from schools as a football player.
After his freshman year, Burnett transferred to USC strictly for track and field as well.
Later though, he thought about walking on to the football team. Burnett's football dreams took a hiatus when USC head coach Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks.
“Then one day I ran into Coach O,” Burnett said to the Orange County Register of an out-of-nowhere encounter with defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron in the spring of 2010 at Heritage Hall. “Everybody knows how that story ends.”
It ended with Burnett being invited to walk on for the team and making it.
However, this magical story hadn’t had its happy ending yet. Many though, would have thought so by being accepted on a Division I football roster as a walk-on/track athlete.
Through fall camp, outsiders and even some coaches still didn’t know who Burnett was. But that didn’t stop him from working his hardest.
After the Notre Dame game in November, Monte Kiffin recalled Burnett at fall camp. “All of a sudden he's running a great flying 40 and covering these kickoffs and I talked to (special teams coach John Baxter) about it," Kiffin told ESPN.
"We started looking at the kid. Coach (defensive backs coach Willie Mack) Garza started working with him and the next thing you know...you just gotta believe in the players–you never know what they can do if you give them a chance. Everybody can do it, but he was given an opportunity and he did it."
The only mention of Burnett through fall camp was a small OC Register snippet after one August 17 practice saying, “Cornerback Tony Burnett blocked two field goals during special teams drills.”
Then in November when All-Pac-10 safety T.J. McDonald was injured early and forced to miss the rest of the Notre Dame game, Burnett was called upon. This was his moment to shine and he did not disappoint. Against the Irish, Burnett had 10 tackles (0.5 for a loss) to lead the team, and a star was born.
Burnett was just thankful for the opportunity by the coaches to let him play and show his talents.
"Coach Kiffin put me in position to make the tackles," Burnett told ESPN when reflecting a few days later on the Notre Dame game. "I just followed the rules he gave me and the assignments with the defense."
Of course, everyone that follows USC football wanted to know who No. 34 was and the answers slowly started to come out.
"The average fan hasn't been able to see it, but we see him every day coming up flying full speed and tackling, so it wasn't anything that I didn't expect," said fellow safety Jawanza Starling to ESPN. "We see it every day in practice."
Lane Kiffin had this to say to ESPN about Burnett’s performance a few days later: “For a guy who has really not played very much football in a long time, and just really played on special teams for the most part this year, he did well.
"He did some good things. Obviously the big negative was the long run on the last drive. He’s there three yards from the line of scrimmage and misses the tackle, but there was a lot of space there as well. All in all, that’s pretty good for a track kid coming in and playing in the USC-Notre Dame game. He did well.”
With McDonald still unable to play Burnett got his first start of the season against crosstown rival UCLA in the season finale. Again he was all over the field and recorded six tackles and helped earn a Trojan victory.
Burnett finished the season appearing in all 13 games, making 26 tackles (10 on special teams) and 0.5 tackles for a loss.
Not to be lost in this was Burnett’s track career in the spring where he posted career bests in long jump (23 feet, 3.25 inches), triple jump (49 feet, .25 inch), 100 meters (10.85 seconds) and 200 meters (22.17 seconds). Burnett placed ninth in both the long jump and triple jump at the Pac-10 Championships and fifth in both jumps at the UCLA dual meet.
His football talents, which were once forgotten, earned him a scholarship from head coach Lane Kiffin in the offseason as a full-time college football player.
Fast-forward to this past spring practice, and Burnett was still showing off his skills both on the football field and track, pulling double duty at times during the day.
Even with missing some of spring practice due to track and injury, Burnett was able to set a personal best in triple jump (49 feet, nine inches) right after a two-and-a-half hour football scrimmage one day. That same day before the scrimmage, Burnett found himself at the top of the depth chart at one of the starting cornerback positions, opposite of Robey.
When Kiffin posted the depth chart he had this to say as to why Burnett went from walk-on to running with the first team:
“He’s fast enough,” said Lane Kiffin to the OC Register. “Usually the big guys aren’t fast enough. He’s one of our faster players.”
Burnett was surprised to find himself at the top of the depth chart so soon. “I was ready to work my way to the top anyway," he said to the OC Register. "Even though I’m running with the ones, I still look at myself as an underdog.”
After reviewing the same scrimmage on film a few days later Kiffin said seven current players looked like NFL-calibre: QB Matt Barkley (5-star), WR Robert Woods (5-star), TE Rhett Ellison (3-star), DE Nick Perry (4-star), S T.J. McDonald (5-star) and CBs Nickell Robey (4-star) and Tony Burnett. Burnett was now being lumped into the same group of highly recruited players that multiple schools had offered scholarships to out of high school and are considered to have bright futures at the professional level.
Burnett has plus size for a cornerback, but he was moved there because of his speed and agility.
This showed how hard Burnett had worked moving up from walk-on to fill in starter to scholarship player to top of the depth chart and now to NFL-calibre.
Burnett's story reminds many USC fans of former Trojans linebacker Clay Matthews.
Matthews walked on at USC before earning a scholarship and becoming a dominant force on the field, which made him a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, where he now plays a pivotal role for the Packers defense who won a Super Bowl last season. Burnett and USC fans from all around hope he can come half as close to duplicating the success Mathews did.
Tony Burnett has beaten many odds and admits he has sacrificed a lot, but the end results reward him with everything he could have ever asked for.