Since he was 5 years old, Deontay Burnett has caught footballs.
While the quarterbacks and locations may have changed over time, much of his life has revolved around this simple act. “It takes time, it’s a lot of time and sacrifice. But that’s what you have to do when you want to be a great player,” Burnett told STACK. “I’ve been catching footballs since I was 5. I spend a lot of time catching the ball and perfecting my craft. As a receiver, that’s your No. 1 goal—catching the football.”
Burnett’s emergence as USC’s top receiver in 2017 (86 receptions for 1,114 yards and 9 touchdowns) was thousands of hours in the making. Some of those hours were spent on the streets of Compton, California, where a young Burnett could often be found playing a game called “Sideline Pop.” The rules are typical pick-up football fare, with one key exception—if you’re in the middle of the street, it’s two-hand touch. But if you’re on the sideline—close to the sidewalk or tree lawn—you’re free to get “popped.” Matching up against neighborhood kids who would do anything to win, Burnett learned there was no room for fear when catching the football.
“It was tag football in the street, but if you run on the sideline, you get smacked and hit hard,” Burnett says. “It gave me something to really compete for with the other kids around the block. My neighborhood helped me become the athlete I am today.”
Burnett might’ve had a knack for the sport from an early age, but he didn’t limit himself to just football. He also participated in basketball, baseball and track. Looking back on his multi-sport experience, Burnett has little doubt the fact he was almost always in-season helped morph him into a superior overall athlete. He believes his basketball background, in particular, developed tools that come in handy as a receiver. “Basketball definitely helped me with my releases—it’s basically the same movements you’re doing (to get open) as a basketball player as a receiver. That helped me shape my game,” Burnett says. “(It also built) my leaping ability.”
On fall Friday nights, Burnett would venture to Junípero Serra High School in nearby Gardena to watch the Cavaliers do battle. He idolized Robert Woods, a player five years his senior who now stars for the Los Angeles Rams. As the top-ranked receiver in his class by Scout.com, Woods was a dazzling talent. But Burnett wasn’t just enamored with his play—he was enamored with his presence. “I always looked up to Robert Woods,” Burnett says. “I always molded myself by him. He’s a great leader, a great competitor, and most definitely a great receiver.”
It was only natural that when it time came for Burnett to attend high school, he went to Serra himself. The school is a Southern California football powerhouse, boasting a long list of NFL alumni. The competition was fierce, and Burnett often found himself lining up across from Adoree’ Jackson—whom the Tennessee Titans would later select 18th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft—during practice. Jackson’s supersonic speed (he clocked a 4.39 40-Yard Dash at the Combine) meant Burnett’s technique had to be razor-sharp to get open. “Adoree’ is a great player—he’s so fast. When we got the chance to compete against each other, it was 50-50 (who would win),” Burnett says. “Going against a top dude like that helped me get better.”
In addition to hard-fought practices against Jackson, Burnett would find extra time to catch balls or hit the weights. “My coach in high school definitely made us lift weights—in the morning, 6 o’clock. Then class started at 8 a.m.,” Burnett recalls. “The extra work (for me) was catching footballs, lifting more weights, (lifting) heavier. More reps at the stuff that gave me a lot of problems.” While Burnett’s insatiable work ethic helped him gradually earn more playing time, it didn’t add much weight to his naturally thin frame. As he worked his way up to three-star status as a recruit, that lack of mass became a recurring concern for college coaches.
It didn’t bother one recruiter, however—USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin, who visited a Serra practice to talk with Jackson, a five-star recruit who was ranked the No. 1 athlete in his class by Rivals. After that practice, Martin watched in amazement as Jackson and a slender receiver snared circus catches and performed explosive back flips. Already intrigued by Burnett’s magnetic hands and effortless athleticism, Martin became further captivated when Jackson revealed how difficult he was to cover during practice. But Burnett was a three-star, and USC had a tradition of only recruiting the best of the best at the wide receiver position. So while offers would come in for Burnett from schools like Washington State and Arizona State, the Trojans didn’t make a move.
But Martin couldn’t shake the feeling that Burnett was something special. They had maxed out their offers for his class, but if they couldn’t offer a scholarship, Tee reasoned, perhaps they could extend the chance to blueshirt? A fairly uncommon tactic in recruiting, “taking a blueshirt” means the player’s scholarship benefits don’t kick in until the fall semester officially begins. That allows the player to count toward the next year’s allotment of scholarships. It was a crafty workaround, and Martin received approval to go for it. Thirty minutes before Burnett planned to sign with Arizona State on National Signing Day, he received the call from Martin. After growing up in the school’s backyard and having watched Woods and Jackson matriculate to USC, Burnett accepted without hesitation.
It didn’t take long for the USC staff to realize they’d snagged a hidden gem. They were instantly wowed by Burnett’s work ethic and attention to detail, and while the Trojans never seem to have a shortage of brash personalities, Burnett handled his business in relative silence. “I’m not very vocal, I’m not gonna talk as much (as some other guys). But my leadership is basically lead by example,” Burnett says.
That approach instilled confidence in Burnett from the staff, and he earned significant playing time as a true freshman. He points to an early-season game against Notre Dame as a turning point for him. Not only was he playing in one of college football’s greatest rivalries, but he was doing it in South Bend against a defense that featured future NFL talent.
“The game pace moved really fast, but as I got in and stayed in longer, it slowed down,” Burnett says. “That Notre Dame game is when everything slowed down for me, because I got that first (real taste) of live action.” He finished the season with 10 catches for 161 yards, and that taste of success drove him even harder.
While highly-touted recruits like Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster were returning the next season, Burnett was determined to carve out a role for himself. That offseason, he dedicated himself to catching hundreds of balls each day. Not just the stock catches, either—leaping catches, balletic grabs, one-handed snares of bullet passes, etc. If there’s a catch that can be made, Burnett has likely practiced it hundreds of times. “I always tell myself if you practice the hardest catches, that they come easy in a game,” Burnett told USA Today in 2016. Heading into his sophomore season, Burnett was primed to break out. However, the Trojans—in part due to an inefficient offense—stumbled to a 1-3 record that September. Looking back on it, the slow start might’ve been a blessing in disguise for Burnett. Why? Because it forced the Trojans to hand the keys to the offense over to a redshirt freshman QB named Sam Darnold.
Burnett had built a strong chemistry with Darnold up to that point, with the two young bucks frequently hooking up for big plays in practice. Burnett had also learned the timing and eye contact that made Darnold comfortable with delivering him the ball. “The quarterback may have 4 seconds—you gotta find a way to get open in those 4 seconds and give him your eyes. That’s a sign you’re telling him you’re ready to catch the football,” Burnett says. “When you give the quarterback your eyes, you’re open and ready to make a play. It gives him confidence to throw the ball.”
Darnold promptly led the Trojans to eight straight victories and a berth in the Rose Bowl, and Burnett played an instrumental role in the turnaround. During those eight consecutive victories, he totaled 33 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns. But Burnett would save his masterpiece for the season finale—a Rose Bowl matchup against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Darnold and Burnett formed a dynamic duo in a thrilling 52-49 victory, with Burnett totaling 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns.
Burnett sported a mile-wide smile after his fantastic performance, but he was already thinking about how he could carry the momentum into next season. “It’s surreal, words can’t even explain it,” Burnett told reporters after the game. “I’m gonna watch some film tomorrow and just try to get better. (I start focusing) on the off-season tomorrow.”
Entering the 2017 offseason, Burnett knew he was primed for a monster year. Jackson and Smith-Schuster had departed for the NFL, and Darnold was returning. By that point, Burnett had won over the coaching staff and proven he could make plays in pressure-packed moments. Yet he never for a second let himself think he’d made it.
“He’s just a shut-up-and-work guy,” USC head coach Clay Helton told reporters of Burnett last April. “You can’t tell the difference between a practice and a game with that kid. It’s not about the hype, it’s just about playing ball each and every day.” Through the first nine practices of that spring, Burnett didn’t drop a single pass.
As expected—and as deserved—Burnett had a monster 2017 season, totaling 1,114 yards and 9 touchdowns. He and Darnold both declared for the 2018 NFL Draft shortly after the team’s final game.
“The NFL has been a life-long dream of mine and I feel I am ready to take on this next challenge in my life,” Burnett said in a statement. To help him prepare for the next level, Burnett turned to Proactive Sports Performance (Westlake Village, California).
STACK caught up with Burnett on location and found a tireless worker bee with a selfless attitude. You watch him work out and you quickly realize he’s probably never skipped a rep in his life. “You can’t cheat yourself. Cheaters never prosper, and it will catch up to you. I always tell myself as I’m working—‘never cheat yourself’,” Burnett says.
While his polished route-running and sticky hands have enticed pro scouts, the same concern that followed Burnett during high school recruiting has been present in the NFL evaluation process. He was listed by USC at 170 pounds, and that’s slender enough to be a concern for some pro scouts. But Burnett helped put those worries to bed when he weighed in at the Combine at a beefy 186 pounds. Though he wasn’t able to participate in drills due to a mild hamstring strain, winning the weigh-in was a huge victory. He credits Proactive with helping him pack on muscle mass via intense lifting and lots of high-quality protein. “I’m eating about 10 times a day,” Burnett says. “A lot of protein, a lot of peanuts. Fruit. Steaks. Chicken. It’s a lot of food, and you just gotta eat it. I’m just eating what they give me and it’s working.”
A bulked up Burnett could feast in the slot against pro defenses. He’s fearless over the middle of the field and he’s been sharpening his skills against elite defensive backs for years now. But when you ask Burnett about what he’ll bring to an NFL team, the first thing he mentions isn’t his production—it’s his willingness to put the team above himself. “I’m willing to do anything for the team, I’m willing to (do anything) to help the team get better,” Burnett says. The NFL will always have a place for players like that.