Recruiting Profile: Noland Burchette
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #11

Highland Springs (Richmond, Virginia) Coach Scott Burton sounds like nothing less than a man on a mission. Since taking the job as the Springers head coach in early 1999, Burton, just 28 years old, has sought nothing less than a rebirth of the once-proud Highland Springs football program Ö and along the way, a total revamp of a young man named Noland Burchette.

In early August of 2001, Burchette, a 6-3, 225-pound defensive end/tight end, gave a verbal commitment to play football at Virginia Tech. The commitment didn't make big news. Burchette was not ranked on Doug Doughty's list of the Top 25 Juniors at the end of last season, and he was nowhere to be found among the pages of SuperPrep, PrepStar, or Alliance Sports (Rivals.com).

But Burchette's commitment, and the fact that Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship in the first place, represents the end of a long road that Burchette and Burton have traveled together. Their journey began in the summer of 1999 and involves the remaking of a football program on one level, and of a young man on another level.

Both Noland Burchette and his coach have come a long way on their respective journeys, and both have a long way to go. But you can forgive them if just for a moment, they take a chance to pause and reflect on what they have achieved. For Burchette, whose future was once indistinct and cloudy, the scholarship offer from Virginia Tech represents a whole new life, and a vastly expanding future.

"Negative Attitudes"

Shortly after starting his job as Highland Springs' new head coach in February of 1999, Burton called a meeting in the weight room of all players who were planning on being on the team the next year. Burton outlined a summer weightlifting program and other requirements for the football players.

To say that his programs were not well-received is understating it. "That was the first real time there was a formal weight program (at Highland Springs HS), ever installed here," Burton notes. "It was slow to be received, because any time you tell kids 'You've got to do this,' and it's hard, they're not going to want to do it. The people who were there (that summer) were definitely in the minority. We only had four or five kids there every day, when I first started."

Burton quickly figured out that what he needed were leaders, kids he could count on to set the tone among his football players and show them the way. "One of the things that we had to really battle when I got here was that the leadership from the peers, the peer role-modeling, was so negative," he says. "It wasn't cool to do what coach says, it wasn't cool to be on the honor role. It was cool to kind of say, 'I'm going to do things my way, not the coach's way.'"

Burton cast his eye among the lot of available players, and among others, settled his gaze on Noland Burchette, a tall, wiry kid who had just finished his freshman year on the junior varsity squad.

"The first time I saw him, he was a freshman, going into his sophomore year. He had come -- one of his friends had dragged him -- to the weight room. And I saw him, and I immediately wanted to know who he was. He was a tall, rangy kid, and you could tell there was going to be a good frame there.

"I talked to him, and he was what I call a fence-sitter. Just in general. He wasn't overly concerned with academics. He wanted to play football, but he only wanted to play on Friday. He didn't understand that it was a 12-month deal."

So Burton set himself to the task of challenging Noland Burchette, to see what he was made of.

Burchette, a soft-spoken, polite kid, remembers the first time he ever saw Burton. "When I first met Coach Burton, when he first got hired for the job, he came in there in the weight room and was talking to everybody, and he was talking about what we had to do Ö and it was a big change at Highland Springs. Everybody was looking at him, like, 'We ain't been doing this, why we gotta do it now?'

"I mean, we'd go to the weight room, but it wasn't as thorough as it is now. So when I first met him, I thought, oh, he's going to be a hard one."

Like most of his teammates, Burchette didn't respond to Burton right away. It took him a while to warm up to his new coach. And like most of his teammates, he stayed away from the weight room during the summer of 1999, the summer before his sophomore year.

When Burchette missed the first day of practice in August and showed up late for the second day, Burton decided to push him, just to see if he would push back.

Burchette remembers that day. "The first day of practice I missed because I had to work. And then the other players came home and told me how hard it was. In a way it turned me off, but I was like, 'No, I'm going to go do what I gotta do.' And the first day of practice, I said something, and he came over and called me a dodo. I said, 'Coach, I'm not a dodo.' He was like, 'You are a dodo in my eyes.' I said something back, and he said, 'I'm your father on this field.'

"That kind of separated me from him at first."

"Noland didn't have the physical, didn't have the forms, all that stuff," Burton recalls. "He was actually still working at King's Dominion, and he told me, 'Coach, I can't be here full-time for another week.'

"And I said to him, right then -- even though I didn't want to, because I was scared what his answer might be, but I realize that if the program wanted to realize its expectations, we couldn't have the work schedules of the kids interfere with football. So I told him, 'Look, if you want to play football for me, you'll be here at 6:30 tomorrow morning.' And I walked out of the room, and I didn't know if I would ever see him again.

"I pulled up the next morning at 6:00, or 5:30, whatever time it was, just hoping he would come, and sure enough, he was there. Two weeks later, he started for us in our opener."

Potential on the Field

Burchette had responded, but that didnít mean he was completely sold on Burton's methods. That would take time.

"The whole summer, I was looking at him like, 'Uh-oh,' " Burchette says of his coach. "I used to play linebacker, and he moved me to defensive end. When he made that change, I went to him one-on-one and said, 'Coach, I don't know about this defensive end stuff. Those guys'll be 300 pounds on the line. I'm kind of small compared to them.'"

"He said, 'We'll get you in the weight room, and you'll get bigger, faster, and stronger. Your quickness will beat them off the ball.' Him telling me this, it never clicked in my head that it would work.

"After the first game, I came to him and said, 'Coach, I told you I couldnít do it.' He said, 'Just give it time.' And the second game came, and I started getting sacks and stuff. And I realized, it was working. And the whole season, I kept getting better and better. By the end of the season, I thought, well, he knows what he's talking about."

Burton knew from the very beginning that Burchette, much like his football team, was a long-term project. "He was so weak, because of his lack of weight room effort, that he could not get in a left-handed stance. He could do it, but not effectively. His sophomore year, he ended up having four or five sacks, and that's basically because he could run. He didn't know what he was doing, but he had a good motor, and he could run."

"A Hundred Colleges"

Just a few games into Burchette's sophomore season, Burton liked what he saw on the field, and he knew it was time for Burchette to step it up.

"I pulled him into my office one day, and I shut the door," Burton says, "and I literally said to him, 'What in the hell are you doing with your life? What are you doing? What do you want to be four years from now?'

"And typically of many kids, he said, 'I don't know.'

"I said to him, 'Well, let me tell you what you could be.' I told him, 'You know, there will be a hundred colleges that will be willing to pay for you to go to their school.' I donít think anybody had ever told him that, and I think that blew him away, what he was being told.

"And when I explained that to him, his ears perked up, and he got a little excited about the possibilities."

It was at that point that Noland Burchette's life started to turn around. Previously aimless, he started to take on a new focus. And much like Burton wanted, Burchette started to spread the word and serve as a role model for his teammates.

"By the end of the season, that's when I figured out he was trying to put us on the right track, no matter how hard it was," Burchette says. "He was being so hard because he's the type of person who wants everything to be perfect. I noticed what he was talking about, so I started to listen to him.

"And I started telling other people, who were trying to stay away from him, he knows what he's talking about. I told them, 'He's telling you the right things, look what he did to me.' I made second team all-district that year."

As the summer of 2000 arrived and summer workouts began, Burchette applied himself like never before. "He was a weight room warrior," says Burton. "He was one of the guys who set the tone. He did not miss a day. We talked about nutrition, and he improved his nutrition. We talked about his running form, and he fixed that. We worked on foot quickness, with a lot of agility drills, and jumping rope, things like that. His strength level just shot through the roof, because he was so weak to begin with. He did absolutely everything I told him to."

The Springers had finished 5-5 in 1999, and they would do so again in 2000, but underneath the identical records, the program -- and Noland Burchette -- were changing.

Burton didn't hesitate to pile even more responsibility on his team leader and personal project. Although he was just beginning to be a good defensive lineman, Burton wanted more of him.

Burton went to Burchette and told him, "We need to put our best athletes on the field, and we want to put you at tight end."

Burchette's response was by now a familiar one. "I was like, 'Uh-oh.'"

But of course, he agreed, and like most things Burton asked of him, it wasn't easy. "First time, in the first game, I was fatigued and tired," Burchette remembers.

But -- and here's the difference in Noland Burchette as a sophomore and Noland Burchette as a junior -- he didn't tell the coach he "couldn't do it." Instead, he just worked harder. "After that (first game), I would stay after practice and run, and I told myself I had to get in shape so I could play both ways. I just like being on the field, so whatever he told me to do, I'd do."

Burchette responded to the new role of tight end in his junior season with 32 catches, which led the team, and he averaged 13 yards per catch and scored 3 TD's. "We could easily open him up," says Burton, who installed a no-huddle offense before last season and has moved Burchette around in it, "and now you've got a 6-2, 210 pound receiver who can easily outrun most of the guys on defense. So we got some mismatches with him. We put him in the slot and matched him up on some guys that can't run that well and got some mismatches. We'll take those matchups any day of the week."

And another thing: he punted last year, too, averaging 37 yards a kick.

"He's got good hands," Burton explains, "and I wanted a punter who could catch it and get it away. He was a little inexperienced last year, because he had never punted in his whole life, and here he is in varsity football. In our second game, it was kind of a low snap, and he picks it up and looks, and it looks like the rush is coming. So he tucks it and goes 70 yards for a touchdown. And this was not a called fake punt. He did it on his own. There was no blocking. Once he had broken four or five tackles, the guys came back and started to block, but he pretty much did it on his own.

"He did that again in our fifth or sixth game of the year. He bobbled the snap, looked up, freaked out, and went for 45 yards. It wasn't a touchdown, but still, it was 45 yards."

From his defensive end spot, Burchette had 11 sacks and nine other tackles behind the line. He also forced five fumbles and recovered five fumbles. As a player, he was turning into everything Burton wanted him to be.

But as you can guess by now, Burton wanted more Ö this time, off the field.

Academics and Community

"I didn't get to know him well until after his sophomore season," Burton admits. "So therefore, any influence I could have had on his academics was null and void, because I didn't really get to know him. He finished his freshman year with a 1.6. His intelligence is not the issue, it's just one of those deals where he was not disciplined. The type of no-show, fence-sitting attitude that he had about football was translating to the academic side of things.

"When we had that meeting early in his sophomore year, I got on him about academics, too. I said, 'You've got to understand, the first thing that a coach is going to ask is, 'Is he a good kid?' And I'll say yes. The next thing he's going to say is, 'What kind of student is he?' And I'll be honest with them. And then there won't be a third question. Because when I answer that second question, that'll be it. You'll be just another guy that'll be 35 years old, saying how good you were in high school, but you'll be working at 7-11 or pumping gas, or whatever. And I said to him, 'Is that what you want?'

"He was respectful and receptive to that. I don't want to say it was an overnight change, because he didn't know how to change. He had to learn what that means. He had to learn, and he's still learning, what it takes to be a good student."

Burton encourage Burchette to take Honors Algebra II his junior year to help bring up his sagging GPA. "I think he made either a C or a B. And the grade gets bumped up a level for an Honors class, so a C or a B becomes a B or an A."

Going into his senior year, Burchette's GPA is still low, particularly in his core classes, where Burton says he has a 2.2. With an 830 on the SAT in his first try, he hasn't qualified academically, but he is on the right track. "If he continues academically at the pace he has for the last two years, he will qualify. He'll be okay," Burton says confidently.

"At first," Burchette admits, "before I thought about what I could be, academics didn't play an important role. But now, I hit the books as hard as I can. My grades are moving up. I'm looking forward to going to college."

This year, as a senior, Burchette is taking AP Psychology, a move that Burton encouraged him to take. He felt that Burchette would be better served in a small AP class of 9 academically-minded students, instead of taking the regular course with nearly 30 other kids with varying degrees of interest in the subject matter. Burchette agreed and accepted the challenge, making him somewhat of an oddity: a non-qualified football player (for the time being, anyway) with Honors and AP classes on his transcript.

Beyond the changes he has made on the field and in the classroom, Burton has encouraged Burchette to understand something else: his role as a role model, both in school and in the community.

"I told him time and time again," says Burton, "'You have no idea that his is true, but when you walk by, there's always five or ten sets of eyes that follow you. You don't see that, but I do. Therefore, everything that you do is being watched. So if you donít turn your homework in, you give these younger kids a green light to not do their homework. So when you're tired and don't feel like doing your homework, then you've got to think of your greater responsibility.'

"I told him, 'You don't have to embrace this, but you have to accept this.' He has done a good job of it. We go into the community, and it's amazing, everybody knows who he is. I'm talking about fifty year old men and women, and six year old girls. They know who he is.

"One of the reasons for that is that he is so likable. He is not a hey-look-at-me type of kid. As a matter of fact, when we were up at Tech (for Tech's summer football camp, where Burchette received his scholarship offer), it was pretty big for him to get an offer from them, an in-state school that is a top-5 program. We had twenty other players at Tech's camp along with Noland, and not one of those twenty other players even knew it (that he had gotten an offer). He's not one of those kids to go back to the room, and say, 'Hey, look at me.'"

The Bond

Somewhere among all the pushing, striving, achieving, and change, something else has happened: Burton and Burchette have grown very close.

"I look at Coach Burton as a second father to me," Burchette says. "If I need help, like help in school, I'll go to his house, and he can help me. What he tells me to do, on the field and off the field, I know it's going to benefit me in every way, so I listen to him."

Burton agrees. "He and I really started to bond and develop a very strong relationship. That's a really, really special feeling that people who are not involved in this business don't understand. But people who have been in this business, and if it has ever happened to them, they know exactly what I'm talking about. There's nothing to describe the feeling that you get when you have that one kid that is just everything to you.

"When I see a kid, and he does everything I tell him to without qualms, then I reciprocate that. I've had several kids at my house, to spend the night and to help with academic projects, to help with research projects, things like that. My wife embraces them, feeds them dinner -- we try to take them to activities outside of school, cultural activities, to expand their perspectives and open them up to some new things. So we've done that before.

"I may coach 30 years and never have another Noland. I absolutely love everything about this kid."

"He's my role model to look up to," Burchette says of the man who has helped him change his life.

For all the hard work that Burchette has put in, Burton has reciprocated. From day one, he put together a film of Burchette, and he showed it to any college coach who would take five minutes out of his day to take a look. Burchette estimates that he sent out 50 to 60 tapes of Burchette to colleges around the country, and he did some in-person promotion of his star player, as well.

"Everywhere that I went," Burton says, "to all the clinics and things like that, I always took the tape with me. Here I am, at a clinic trying to learn things, like every other coach in America does, but I'm bringing tapes along with me. The college coaches that are presenting, I'm saying, 'Hey, you got a second to take a look at this?' And that's when they really started to stand up and take notice."

Ultimately, Burton's efforts, which included sending letters and making phone calls, paid off. Burchette received offers from Richmond, JMU, N.C. State, Maryland, Ohio, Marshall, and Virginia Tech. The Hokies' offer came during their summer 2001 football camp in mid-July, and Burchette accepted it after two weeks of thinking about it.

Fighting Perception

So how did a kid who is so multi-talented escape the notice of so many college recruiters? When answering that question, Burton picks his words carefully. He notes that Highland Springs has had very few Division 1-A recruits lately, and those who have been D-1A recruits, such as current Tech defensive end Jim Davis (who didnít play under Burton), have had to go to prep school.

So the problem at Highland Springs hasn't been one of talent. It has been one of perception among college coaches and recruiters. Burton is trying to change that, and for that reason, Burchette's offer to Tech is important not just to the coach and the player, but to the Highland Springs program as a whole.

"I think the perception was, you don't know what you're going to get when you go into Highland Springs," Burton says. "So it was real important to me to get -- for our program, for selfish reasons -- to get that first kid to go, you know? For public awareness for our program, and for the spotlight to be on our program, it was important.

"It was important to me that we get one guy as soon as possible that could change that perception, and certainly, Noland has done that for us. I think that some people -- I don't want to say that they intentionally stayed away, but if you've got a choice between another school and Highland Springs, perception may have led you into that other school.

"I will say this: everybody who came in my first year as a courtesy call -- 'Hey, I'm Joe Smith from X University' -- I showed every one of them tape of Noland as a sophomore. And every one of them said, 'Yeah, he's going to be a player. I'll be back.'"

Among those who saw tape of Burchette as a sophomore was Tech assistant Jim Cavanaugh, who recruits Richmond-area high schools for the Hokies.

"Coach Cavanaugh and my athletic director, Rudy Ward, are lifelong friends," Burton notes. "They've been friends for 30 years. And so Coach Cav made it a point to come in, because of his connection with Rudy, when I got hired here. As soon as he showed up, I said, 'Here, I've got to show you something.' And he was interested right then, because Noland can run. At that point in time, his attitude was, okay, let's see what he does academically, and let's see if he gets any bigger."

The improvement in Burchette in just the last year was enough to convince the Hokie coaches to take a chance on him, and after seeing him in the Tech football camp in July, they offered him a scholarship. In this day and age, Virginia Tech doesn't have to gamble on players who haven't qualified, so their offer is a vote of confidence in both Noland Burchette and Scott Burton to finish the job they have started and get Noland fully qualified academically.

Burchette's verbal commitment to Tech has been a source of pride among the students, faculty, and staff at Highland Springs, who are looking for success stories among their student body. Burchette, who has labored hard to improve himself both athletically and academically, still has much ground to cover, but he is well on his way.

And his commitment to Tech is solid. Burton counseled him not to commit unless he was "five thousand percent sure," citing Burchette's responsibility to set a good example for others and not back out of a commitment.

"It's stone," Noland Burchette says of his verbal to Tech. "It can't move. There's no reason for me to even bother to visit (anywhere else), because Iím not going to go there."

Besides, he is already on a journey, one that is going pretty well.

 

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