ATLANTA — Shoulder-to-shoulder, with helmets in their hands, the veteran and freshman walked down Yellow Jacket Alley.
Speaking with a mild sense of urgency, the elder seemed to be imparting wisdom to his young pupil.
It could be wisdom that comes in handy when the freshman takes to the field on the first play of the first drive of Saturday’s game.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after breaking up his conversation with fellow linebacker Sedric Griffin, Georgia Tech linebacker and Macon native Julian Burnett confirmed that he will make the first start of his career Saturday when the Yellow Jackets host No. 18 North Carolina.
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“That’s what it seems like,” Burnett said with a smile.
The energetic, ball-hawking defender said coaches originally gave him the news during film sessions Monday. At that time, they informed players that they planned to scrap their base 4-2-5 defense in favor of a simpler, easier to manage 4-3 scheme.
In layman terms, that means they won’t field their regular four-lineman, two-linebacker, five-defensive back set. Instead, they will drop their fifth defensive back and employ a third linebacker — Burnett.
During his weekly news conference Tuesday morning, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson did not really say Burnett would be that player and even avoided hints that the true freshman could see more action.
“I imagine Julian Burnett’s head will be spinning so much he’ll be trying to find where to line up,” Johnson said, when asked if Burnett could provide extra energy to Georgia Tech’s defense. “The guys who have played need to bring the energy to the defense. And good players make good plays. That’s the bottom line. You want to bring energy, you make plays.
“Now, it can’t be one guy every game or two guys. There’s got to be different guys step up and make plays. It’ll be interesting to see who we play on Saturday.”
It appears the plan was actually to make Burnett’s starting debut and the appearance of a third linebacker a surprise. But when an assistant said earlier this week that the team planned to switch up its defense, the speculation about Burnett’s starting potential arose.
Johnson said the defensive changes were forced to come after the Yellow Jackets surrendered 454 yards of total offense to Miami on Thursday and the average 377 yards of total offense the defense has allowed this season.
“It’s something we’ve got to do. We’ve got to simplify and play,” Johnson said. “We had too much in. Any time you can’t do what you’re doing, you’ve got too much in. It’s better to get good at something than to not be good and do a lot.
“There’s two philosophies you can have. You can do all kinds of stuff and not do anything, or you can do limited stuff and try to be good at whatever it is that you do. And both sides of the ball, we’re not really good at anything right now.”
If there is one player who has been consistently good in all facets of his game, it has been Burnett. Walking away with 14 total tackles in his appearances as a backup in Georgia Tech’s first three games, the former Middle Georgia Player of the Year has wowed coaches with his physical nature and knack of finding ballcarriers.
“I just love to play the game, and if you’re going to play the linebacker position, you just have to be willing to go hard on every down, and you can’t run away from contact. That’s your position,” Burnett said. “I just have that mind-set that I want to be the hitter, and I don’t want to be hit, and I guess that drives my intensity and keeps me running, and I try to be on every play.”
That type of drive and passion is expected to pay off against the Tar Heels. After three less-than-inspiring performances from its defense, Georgia Tech is hoping adding a third linebacker will add a spark to its unit.
“It makes us more physical, whereas before we weren’t with two linebackers and a ‘Husky’ (the fifth defensive back) as a smaller guy being up in the box,” Burnett said. “You’ve got three guys now that’s known to be hitters, and it’s just raising up the aggressiveness and hopefully it’ll work.
“I don’t know if it’s particularly because of me, but they said they wanted more hitters in there, and I can’t help but assume they expected me to be the hitter.”
Although Burnett expects to play virtually every snap as a starter Saturday, he said none of this matters if he isn’t able to help the Yellow Jackets pull out a victory.
“It is a must-win,” he said. “We don’t want to set ourselves back any more than we already have. We’re just making everything simple. We’re just going out there and playing football and try to hit them where it hurts.”