TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a year in which Florida State must replace the nation’s second-most productive pass rusher, FSU has the luxury of leaning on a player who had more sacks in 2016 than all but eight returning players in college football.
And he’s only a sophomore.
That would be Brian Burns, whose 9.5 sacks as a freshman and big dreams for the future should help the Seminoles soften the blow of DeMarcus Walker’s (16 sacks in 2016) departure.
“I’m extremely excited,” Burns said in the locker room after Florida State beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl. “I came a long way and my freshman year was definitely a success.”
A former high-school All-American from Fort Lauderdale, Burns, who first picked up football as a freshman at American Heritage School, finished with the most sacks of any FSU freshman since Ron Simmons in 1977.
And, as a result, the Seminoles enjoyed their fiercest pass rush in several years as well.
Led by Walker and boosted by Burns, Florida State posted 51 sacks in 2016, good for second-most in the nation and first when ranked by sacks-per-game (3.92).
Carrying a longer, leaner frame – he stands at 6-foot-5, 218 pounds – Burns’ speed and athleticism made for a perfect complement to Walker’s strength and power.
“You knew that he would be a guy that you could put in in (certain) situations, third-down, because of his athleticism,” FSU defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said. “He’s so limber and he can get around that edge.
“But I’m going to tell you: Brian is a very smart young man too. Picks up things very well. He’s fun to coach.”
Yet, to hear Burns tell it, that wasn’t always the case.
Burns admitted after the Orange Bowl that he arrived in Tallahassee figuring that he had a pretty good handle on things.
Not that anyone could blame him after racking up 28 sacks during his junior and senior seasons in high school.
But fall camp led to a rude awakening for Burns, who found himself on the wrong side of instruction from position coach Brad Lawing.
“At first I started off real hard-headed, not wanting to listen to what (Lawing) was actually saying,” Burns said. “But once I finally set my ego aside and concentrated and focused on what he was actually telling me, he improved my game to the max.”
The results are plain to see.
After hitting a midseason lull in which he didn’t record a statistic against North Carolina, Miami or Wake Forest, Burns came on strong with 15 tackles over second half of the year.
He recorded at least one tackle in all each of FSU’s five regular-season games, and he capped things off with breakout performances against both Syracuse (5 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one blocked punt) and Florida (4 tackles, 1.5 sacks).
Asked for the biggest adjustment from high-school football to collegiate, Burns gave a common answer: “The speed of the game.”
“You have to actually be in that fire to understand how hot it is,” he continued.
A promising freshman year behind him, Burns has now set his sights on the next task: making sure FSU’s pass rush doesn’t miss a beat without Walker.
He certainly won’t be doing it alone, as junior defensive end Josh Sweat (7 sacks in 2016), as well as hybrid linebacker Jacob Pugh (4.5) make up an edge-rushing trio that could be as fierce as any in the ACC.
Still, with Walker set to play on Sundays this fall, Burns understands someone will need help fill that void.
And, given his results from last season, it’s only natural that the Seminoles would first look to him.
“I’m a little nervous to now be an every-down defensive end,” Burns said.
“But,” he added in the same breath, “I’m going to be ready for it.”