ATLANTA — Forty-five minutes had passed, and he was still missing.
A hulking, muscular young man, he shouldn’t be that hard to find, right?
Perhaps he was on the football field, forced to stay behind to run a few extra sprints? Or maybe he had disappeared into the weight room, seeking a quick bicep-toning workout?
Nope and nope; the 210-pound linebacker was not in either of those places. He was somewhere else.
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Nearly an hour after he was scheduled to meet with a familiar face from home, Julian Burnett tiptoed quietly into Georgia Tech’s sports information office with an embarrassed, sheepish grin. The true freshman had lost track of time and was busy studying for summer school classes.
“I would really like to have at least a 3.0 (GPA) in school,” he later said, “that would be real good.”
While his head has been buried inside college schoolbooks for nearly two months now, Burnett’s body has been anxious to find itself stuffed inside a pair of college shoulder pads.
“As far as this football thing goes, I would just like to be able to learn, and with everything I learned, be able to make something happen when I get on the field,” Burnett said. “Hopefully, I can start one day and then use that to stay on the field.”
One of 21 players offered scholarships this spring to play at Georgia Tech, the former Westside standout comes into his first college season hoping to contribute to an often beleaguered and injury-maligned linebacking unit.
But listed at just 5-foot-10, Burnett’s short frame caused some last fall to question just how good he could be at the FBS level. Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, however, did not share those concerns then, and he still does not now.
“I keep hearing a lot out the (summer) pass skills of this Julian Burnett at linebacker, and if our linebackers keep getting hurt as much as they did last year, I can see a guy like that being able to step right in,” Wommack said.
At least five of Georgia Tech’s top linebackers missed playing time last season due to injuries. This year, sophomore Kyle Jackson — who filled in regularly last season for some of those other injured linebackers — is already out with a foot injury and may not return in time for the Sept. 5 opener against Jacksonville State.
Besides, Burnett’s teammates have told him, the Yellow Jackets have a tendency to rotate linebackers in and out of plays on a regular basis. That should only increases his odds of seeing the field this fall.
LEARNING THE SCHEMES
With fall camp now one week away, Burnett knows the best way for him to get on the field is to study his playbooks as hard as he has his textbooks.
“It’s a whole lot more complicated than in high school,” Burnett said. “After sitting in a couple of film sessions, I’m really lost. But it’s just going to take repping it out and practice and drills for me to get the hang of (the defense). Then I should be on my way.”
At Westside — where Burnett garnered All-Middle Georgia and Middle Georgia Player of the Year honors from The Telegraph — learning was easier, Burnett said.
Play schemes for the Seminoles were fairly basic: know where your teammates are, find the football and hit the man with it — hard.
Burnett’s knack for blowing through ballcarriers with his booming, pad-crunching blows gave him the reputation of a fear-inducing defender. The Yellow Jackets liked his ability to be around every play in every game, and his consistency at racking up loud, popping tackles.
But the 2008 GHSA Class AAAA Defensive Player of the Year knows that none of that alone can help him get by on The Flats.
“The biggest thing I’m having to deal with is, whereas (in high school) I kind of had a feel of everybody else’s position and where they would be, I really only had to focus mainly on mine. But now, I have to know everything,” Burnett said. “I have to know about the d-line and what the coverage is, I have to know whether somebody is going to be passed off to me, I have to know if I’m going to have help in the secondary.
“It’s just a whole lot to fathom at one time.”
To make sense of some of the dizzying lessons he has learned in film sessions and playbook reviews, Burnett has sought the advice of veteran linebackers Sedric Griffin and Brad Jefferson.
“Sometimes — well, all the time — when I’m lost in the film studies, I won’t even say anything, and (Griffin) will just turn around and ask me, ‘You don’t get it, do you?’ And then he’ll try to break it down as best as he can,” Burnett said of the senior.
For Jefferson, any advice he gives Burnett and other young linebackers comes from the players who did the same for him.
“I really had no choice but to take him under my wing,” said Jefferson, a fellow Middle Georgian. “Phillip Wheeler and Gary Guyton, they took me off to the side, and after 7-on-7 practices, we would stay afterwards so they could get me right. Because (then-defensive coordinator Jon) Tenuta’s defense to me when I first came in, it was like, I opened the playbook and … I straight closed it, you know? I closed it right back up.”
Tenuta’s defense confused Jefferson as much as Wommack’s sometimes confuses Burnett, Jefferson said. But the best thing Burnett and other freshmen can do, Jefferson said, is play as if they know exactly what’s going on.
“The No. 1 thing is don’t be nervous,” he said. “When I first came in, I was so nervous I couldn’t play my right game. I was studying and all. I’ll tell (the freshmen) like Coach (Tenuta) told me, whenever in doubt, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the play or not, just go full speed. You can never mess up going full speed.”
‘RAMBO’ STARTS FITTING IN
Google “Julian Burnett Macon,” and a video compiled by Telegraph high school editor Jonathan Heeter is one of the first results that appears.
In the minute-long segment, put together for all of 2007’s All-Middle Georgia honorees, Burnett can be seen rolling his full body weight on top of running backs and chasing down nervous quarterbacks in the backfield.
Always bursting into view just when the ballcarrier seems to least expects it, No. 40 is constantly seeking action.
For that reason, but mostly because of his abnormally muscular 18-year-old build, Burnett’s teammates have given him the nickname “Rambo.”
Morgan Burnett — no relation to Julian — is Georgia Tech’s All-America hopeful at safety and creator of the team’s nicknames. Of all the veterans, the junior is probably the closest to Julian Burnett, occasionally referring jokingly to the freshman as his “little cousin.”
According to Julian Burnett, one night this summer, while several Yellow Jackets were hanging outside of a residence hall, Morgan Burnett settled on his latest creation. The team already has Jonathan “Diesel/D-Train” Dwyer and Brad “The Gladiator” Jefferson.
“He was like, ‘Man, you remind me of Gladiator when he first got here, I got to come up with a nickname for you,’” Julian Burnett said, recalling his conversation with Morgan. “So the nickname he ended up giving me was ‘Rambo.’ So the older guys call me Rambo now. He was just saying that ‘Gladiator’ sounded like a warrior name because he’s all big and everything, and he was just saying that since I reminded him of how Gladiator was when he first got here, he felt I needed a warrior-like name, too.”
Earlier this summer, as Morgan Burnett, a metro Atlanta native, met with members of the state media, he was asked about his impressions of the freshmen he had met to that point. “Rambo” came up right away.
“To me, it’s like a lot of those guys that don’t come from the city — I call them guys that come from the country — those guys always come in pretty strong and bulked up to me,” Morgan Burnett said, laughing. “Yeah, (Julian Burnett) has come in strong.
“He looks like he’s already been in college about three years.”
Turning shy when asked about his size, the normally gregarious Julian Burnett doesn’t like dwelling on his somewhat imposing frame.
“I just don’t take any of that to the head,” he said. “I just work hard. I guess that’s just happens to be the result, you know?”