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Terrell Burgess changed his life over 3 months of football

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LA’s newest safety, nickel corner, and special teamer was not much of an NFL prospect until recently

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 14 Utah at USC Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every time I go down an NFL player’s high school recruiting history, I hit the moment where I stop and appreciate how much our lives — and our value within our respective worlds — changes from moment to moment. I think about myself as a writer and realize that while I could have “X” amount of value at the moment (to some of you reading, this “X” represents “no value found”), maybe I have “Y” or “Z” three years from now, with one being better and the other being worse.

And “X” didn’t give me a good indication that I was going to land at “Y” or “Z” either. There was little understood about what makes a person go from “X to Z” or “X to Y” or “X to X” and so you’re just lucky to be a letter at all. With almost every college football recruit, you eventually go from “X to out” within the next three to five years.

According to the NCAA, 1.6% of their football players will be drafted. And according to the New York Post, that’s about the same odds that an adult would say that track and field is their favorite sport.

So, yeah. Not good.

Reading old rankings of high school football recruits is not that different than reading old NFL drafts. Most of the good players really are near the top. Some of the best ones fall through the cracks and are found later down the line. But a lot of those who you expected to be great because of their status near the “1” ranking end up proving to have the same value that some of you believe I have as a writer.

Terrell Burgess slipped through the cracks.

The Los Angeles Rams selected Burgess with the 104th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Utah, which is higher than where he was ranked in his region alone for the 2015 college recruits.

Coming out of San Marcos High School in San Marcos, CA, Burgess was a three-star recruit by Rivals and ESPN; the latter ranked him as the 61st best cornerback recruit in the country, sandwiched between Dicaprio Bootle and Desmon Smith and finally I’ve written the words “Dicaprio Bootle.” Over at Rivals, he was ranked as the 71st best recruit in the state, a list topped by linebacker Mique Juarez, who chose to go to UCLA while Burgess went to Utah.

Last May, Juarez announced his transfer from UCLA to Utah after a frustrating and scary career that has resulted in more concussions (3) than tackles (2). These are the stories that humble me and make me stop before celebrating ... basically anything.

Also on that list was another cornerback, David Long out of Los Angeles, who was ranked 15th in state and chose to go to Michigan and was drafted by the Rams a year ago. Burgess is another one of the lucky few who will be paid to play football.

San Marcos is a city in San Diego, about a 90-minute drive from where Burgess will be playing for the Rams. Burgess caught 61 passes for 1,162 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior, plus three interceptions as a defensive back. He also had four as a junior.

Burgess also drew praise for his work in the classroom in high school, and was honored multiple times by the Pac-12 for his academic achievements during college. At 18, he seems to talk with the confidence of someone much older and appears wise beyond his years in the game of football.

Though he didn’t draw a ton of praise in stars or rankings perhaps, Burgess had plenty of options to choose from. Rivals lists 13 school offers, including from Wisconsin, Boise State, and five Pac-12 schools, including Utah. Burgess chose the Utes and was part of a recruiting class that ranked 37th nationally.

Again, should we talk about rankings and their merits at this point?

Among those recruited with Burgess were 2017 first round pick Garett Bolles (transfer), 2019 fourth rounder Mitch Wishnowsky (whose last name sounds like if a genie sneezed), and fellow rookies Bradlee Anae, Zack Moss, and Leki Fotu. But while Moss, Anae, and Fotu had more immediate impacts, Burgess spent most of his first three seasons with the Utes on special teams.

He recorded one tackle as a freshman, 18 tackles as a sophomore, and 16 tackles as a junior with three passes defensed. Just one year ago, and only eight months before he was drafted into the NFL as a third round pick, Terrell Burgess was a recruit who barely blipped a single radar and had 35 career tackles with no interceptions.

What exactly were the signs that “X” was about to become “Z”? Maybe there were none to the outside observer, but Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham doesn’t shy away from patience when it comes to his recruits and that was evident with the growth of Burgess from a player who spent three years on the practice field to being a Pac-12 honorable mention as a senior.

As Wittingham said after he saw seven of his players drafted last weekend:

“Where we’ve made our money over the years is through developing,” Whittingham said. “Taking the players we get in the program, guys that may be missing something, maybe they have the big frame, but they’re missing some weight or missing some strength and just figuring out what we need to do to develop these guys and get them where they need to be.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing a kid come in there, an 18-year-old kid that maybe doesn’t have a lot of direction, and he leaves here a guy that has a degree in his hand and an opportunity to hopefully take his game to the next level.”

That opportunity for Burgess came in 2019 after starting safeties Marquise Blair (2nd round pick) and Corrion Ballard (graduated) both left the program. Burgess was considered a favorite to win a job at safety but not a guarantee.

Early Prediction: As of right now, Burgess and Afia are the top two candidates to start next season, barring no further additions to the roster. Burgess played well as a backup in 2018 and Afia has shown flashes in the past. RJ Hubert has drawn praise from coaches and could be the next to make the leap next season. Utah also has the option of playing Julian Blackmon at safety.

Blackmon did win a job at safety, as Philip Afia gave up football in 2019, again showing how blurred the line is between an NFL future and doing something else. All it may have taken is one injury or one DB coming in and winning a job over Burgess from him perhaps being on the same path as Afia. That was not the case.

Burgess played his one and only season as a college starter in 2019, recording 81 total tackles, 7.5 for a loss, five passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, and one interception. The Utah defense ranked sixth nationally with 15 points per game allowed. The pass defense was exceptional; though they would lose easily to Justin Herbert and Oregon, the sixth overall pick had his lowest completion percentage of the season and was mostly ineffective.

Over the course of three months of college football, Burgess went from a non-draft prospect to quite obviously under consideration, especially if he had a positive showing in the pre-draft hoopla. And he put the “LA” in hoopla when that came around.

At the 2020 Senior Bowl, Burgess showcased versatility by playing outside corner, nickel, and safety in practice, then having a good game to top it off.

As more and more people became aware of Burgess, he would draw praise for many attributes on the field, including being a strength in both pass and run defense; the latter of which often being ignored by media and fans as a skill. Former Utah and NFL and biased QB Scott Mitchell had this to say about Burgess prior to the draft:

“He is a guy that you can put on the line of scrimmage and he can make plays in the run game but can also cover a wide receiver in the backfield,” Mitchell said. “He can run left and right while also making a tackle on a fast slot receiver. Some guys in the NFL can’t cover and some can’t do the run game but Terrell Burgess can do both.”

Mitchell praises Burgess for fast reaction time, closing speed, range, and his playmaking ability. These are all valuable skills for a safety and in regards to the Rams, we also know that they will have a competition at slot cornerback. Burgess could be valuable in playing against slot receivers and tracking down running backs as Brandon Staley constructs his 2020 defense.

And all of this would be meaningless if Burgess ran a 4.65. That wasn’t an issue either.

Burgess got a “6.2 out of 8” grade at the combine, which is thought to be a “good backup/potential starter” if that means anything to you. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash, fifth-fastest for safeties.

Perhaps one area of concern for Burgess, especially as it pertains to playing cornerback, would be his 29.5” arms. It may seem a weird thing to focus on, but it has been quite rare over at least the last decade for anyone to find a successful cornerback with arms under 31 inches. The closest may be Trae Waynes and Stephon Gilmore, both at 31”, and Casey Hayward, at 30.25”, but the majority of all NFL corners are at 32” and above. The successful ones especially. First round picks who have been critiqued for “short arms” include Vernon Hargreaves, and Hargreaves has not even really worked out as a slot corner in the league.

Hargreaves arms came in at 30.63”. Burgess is pretty far from that. The next-closest example would be 2018 second round pick Donte Jackson, who also had 29.5” arms and was selected by the Carolina Panthers. Jackson was benched by the end of 2019.

For safeties, arm length becomes less of an issue. I wouldn’t call it a non-issue, but finding quality safeties under 32” and 31” in arm length is a lot easier. It happens sometimes. Naturally, I would expect Burgess to make more sense at safety, though a future at nickel isn’t out of the question. In actuality, it appears to be LA’s immediate answer to the need there after releasing Myactualposition Robey-Coleman.

Said another coach at Utah:

“His ability to play multiple positions and do multiple things is why you have seen his value skyrocket,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “That and he is one of the smartest football players that scouts will interview.

That “Swiss Army Knife” versatility is what helped the Rams opt to use a late third round pick on a player who may be best suited to play a position that may already have two starters (safety) because he can also sit in on special teams, a few packages on defense, and potentially as a starting nickel. He also still caught passes occasionally, though mostly not in the games.

The LA Rams seem to have drafted a good football player who may have a low ceiling in the beginning but potentially a high floor and who could compete immediately at a position of need. And while it makes me kind of forlorn to reminisce on the hundreds of recruits who were rated as better than Terrell Burgess coming out of high school, it brings my lorn right back again to see a player overcome odds year after year to realize a dream that once truly only seemed like fantasy.