Sweet Feet Steps Up
by Art Stevens
TSL Extra, Issue #11

Close your eyes. Prepare for a journey in a mental time machine. Weíre going back, way back. Back, back, back Ö

Picture yourself at your high school graduation. Cap and gown worn with pride, diploma in hand. Youíve got it made. Youíre educated, youíre ready, you know what you need to know.

Now hit the fast-forward button. Move ahead four years or so, or however long it took you to graduate from college. By this time, youíre smart enough to know you still donít know it all and, by gosh, you knew so much less when you graduated from high school.

That college degree makes you confident but, unlike your prep diploma, it doesnít make you cocky. Itís called maturity, something all of us think we have early and know we donít really have several years later.

The Keith Burnell you see today in a Virginia Tech football uniform doesnít have a college degree yet. Heís working toward one in residential property management. But he has reached a level of maturity he didnít have Ė didnít come close to having Ė when he left Western Branch High School.

"A year ago," Tech associate head coach Billy Hite said, "I wouldnít have even considered starting Keith. Thereís no question a year ago we wouldnít be sitting here talking about Keith Burnell.

"Ever since spring practice, heís just been outstanding. I donít think Iíve ever had a back improve as much as Keith."

Without some very bad luck for the Hokies and standout tailback Lee Suggs, we might not be having this conversation, either. As all Tech fans are well aware by now, the 2001 season got off to an excellent start in the victory column (two in the first two games) but a terrible start in the injury column.

Suggs, the man who had 1,207 yards and 28 touchdowns (one on a reception) last season, was lost for the season just 37 minutes into the opener against Connecticut. He blew out his left knee and needed reconstructive surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament. Heís expected back for 2002. The 2001 season will carry on without him.

Suddenly, Hiteís spring proclamation that "you can never have enough good backs" was all too true. Hite, the running backs coach, used the line when talking about how Burnell would fit in after an outstanding spring session and outstanding spring game. Suggs was coming back and a bunch of good recruits (Kevin Jones, Cedric Humes, and Justin Hamilton) were coming in the door.

Where would Burnell fit?

How about at No. 1?

"Heís made me feel very comfortable with him out there," Hite said.

So who is this guy?

Well, the simple answer is heís an exceptionally polite young man from Chesapeake who, for a time, was about as scatterbrained as he was talented. His nickname was "Sweet Feet," but he started his career at Tech as if he were auditioning for the lead in a movie called "The Absent-Minded Running Back."

At Western Branch High School, Burnell earned the big time accolades. All-America teams, recruiting watch lists, the works. As a senior in 1997, even slowed by a bum ankle, he rushed for 1,224 yards and 25 touchdowns (ironically, very Suggs-like numbers). He had 1,228 yards and 20 touchdowns a year earlier.

Lew Johnston, the Western Branch coach, said Burnell and Dre Bly (North Carolina) were the most heavily recruited athletes heís ever had.

"It was very much an entire east coast type of thing," Johnston said. "About the only ones who werenít interested were the Florida schools. I guess they donít have to recruit much out of state.

"He was a slasher, a cutter. Heíd hit the holes and make his cuts. Thatís why he got his nickname. He was difficult to bring down and, if he needed to, heíd lower his shoulder. He was exciting. If he hadnít gotten that ankle banged up his senior year, I have no idea how far we would have gone. He would have had an incredible year."

Tech won the recruiting war in the year it also landed another running back from Roanoke named Lee Suggs. Burnell went off to Tech with some serious expectations.

"I had big plans on playing," Burnell said. "I thought I was going to play my freshman year. But things changed. The blitzes, the different pass routes Ö I wasnít used to all that. With the ball in my hands, I was just as good as anybody.

"Without the ball, I wasnít. I was one of the worst."

He sure didnít get off to a good start.

"The second meeting, he forgot his notebook," Hite said. "He went to get it. By the time he got back, he was late for my meeting and heíd also missed treatment. That one thing caused three problems.

"Thatís where it all started. I told him, ĎTo play for me, you have to do things right both on and off the field.'"

Said Johnston, "He was a kid who went off to school with not necessarily inflated ideas but big ideas of what he was going to do. He possibly needed a little more self-discipline. He got into the doghouse early. He didnít seem to understand that if he was performing well, did these things matter?"

They did, and it took a while for Burnell to register that. In the meantime, he fell behind. He got into two games as a redshirt freshman, with seven carries for 14 yards. Last season, he had 17 carries in nine games. He gained 111 yards. He had the Hokiesí longest run of the season Ė a 59-yarder against Rutgers.

It wasnít a particularly happy two years and he thought often about relocating.

"I wasnít playing and when youíre not playing, you want to go somewhere else and play," Burnell said.

Johnston listened, to a point. Then he got serious with Burnell.

"We starting talking after his freshman year," Johnston said. "Basically I just listened after the first year. The second year got a lot more serious. He said, ĎIím out of here if things donít work out in the spring.í We started exploring the options. He still wanted to play major-college football. He felt he was a major-college running back.

"It was the same thing last year when he came home for Christmas. I finally told him, ĎYour white daddy is going to tell you what you need to hear, and you listen if you want, or do what you want.í I was tired of it. My first thought was that he was too far along in his education (to transfer). He was making good grades and he liked his major. That got his attention.

"The second thing I told him is that he never did exactly what they told him to do. I told him, ĎYou just follow Lee Suggs around and youíll be fine.í All this was just accumulation. The classic light bulb went on. Keith thought he was doing a good job in the weight room. You put him against Lee and you could tell he wasnít doing the same job as Lee."

Johnston said Burnell promised him heíd see a new man. "And I have," Johnston said. "What I saw in the spring for the first time was a totally focused Keith Burnell."

Just in time, too, because Hite was about out of patience.

"Coach (Frank) Beamer has always told me, donít ever give up on talent," Hite said. "It was just being tired of all the other things. The biggest thing was just being prepared."

Consider spring ball the first sign of the rededicated Burnell. He didnít let up through the summer and into preseason. He had accepted his role as Suggsí primary backup, not a bad place to be, considering Tech makes good use of at least two tailbacks.

Then one third-quarter run against Connecticut changed everything, and Burnell was the Hokiesí top tailback.

"Iíll tell you Iím good," said Burnell, who will certainly do just that. "I also know I can be better. Iím willing to do that. Whatever it takes to be the best, Iím willing to work to get that extra."

Burnell and Suggs arenít that much alike and yet, at the same time, arenít that different. Theyíre both 6-0. Suggs is listed two pounds heavier at 204.

Suggs is fast, but is more of a power runner. His incredible strength sometimes overrides his speed.

Burnell is fast, but more of a dancer.

Suggs is quiet. You have to pull it out of him. Burnell eats up batteries on a tape recorder.

"Keith is an outstanding back," Hite said. "He can run with power. He can run with speed. I donít know that Iíve seen a back as good as Lee at breaking tackles, at finding that little seam and being able to get through the hole. Keith has a little more Ďjukeí than Lee has."

Johnston is delighted to see the new Burnell. A veteran coach, heís had a ton of good players come through his program. Two others (Emmett Johnson, Marvin Urquhart) are on the Tech roster. Johnstonís family is a Tech family. Daughter Mandy is a freshman there. Son Bryan, a former Western Branch player, works in the schoolís Sports Information office. One of his jobs is to line up player interviews.

Burnell, Lew Johnston said, is a part of his family, too.

"Heís real special," Johnston said. "I donít mind telling you Iím a born-again Christian and I feel like the Lord put Keith in my life and my heart a long time ago. He just became part of the family. Mandy thinks of him as her brother. Heís real special to all of us.

"He has a little Ďstreetí in him, a little Ďcockiness,í but Keith is a warm, people-loving person with a lot of charisma."

Not to mention a big responsibility, one heís finally ready to handle.

"I have the opportunity and I plan to run with it," Burnell said. "I donít plan on looking back."



Copyright © 2001 Maroon Pride, LLC