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VOL. 42 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 17, 2018

Rookie receiver is first Titan born after team's move to Tennessee

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Titans undrafted rookie wide receiver Deontay Burnett has a steep hill to climb to earn a roster spot. The team has 12 receivers in camp and will need only five or six for games.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

Deontay Burnett is so young that, to anyone’s knowledge, he is the first player to wear a Tennessee Titans uniform who was born after the team played its first game in the Volunteer State.

Burnett is just 20 years old and in Titans camp as an undrafted rookie receiver. He was born Oct. 4, 1997, a full six weeks after the then-Tennessee Oilers topped the Oakland Raiders to kick off the franchise’s lone season in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis.

Now let’s see if Burnett can stick with the Titans longer than the Titans stuck with Memphis?

Burnett is a long shot. He’s young and in a crowded receiver room, competing with guys several years older for a spot.

But at least one Titans teammate knows Burnett is capable of meeting the challenge. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who saw Burnett catching punts behind his back when both were at Junipero Serra High School, says the rookie is special enough to buck the odds.

“He was a backup quarterback when I was at (Junipero) Sierra High School. My senior year, he switched to receiver. It was in the championship game, one-handed catch – touchdown,” Jackson recalls.

“He’s always had great hands. The first time I ever saw him really was back there doing punt returns, I knew how good his hands were. He was able to locate the ball effortlessly. He used to catch them behind his back. He was just a different kind of athlete.”

Burnett says he was the second-team quarterback in high school, basically out of necessity.

“I was a backup quarterback all the way up till my junior year,” the soft-spoken Burnett explains. “Coming into high school, I had played receiver all my life, but in high school, they didn’t have a quarterback, so I played quarterback. But when I had the opportunity to play receiver, I went to receiver.”

The position switch worked for Burnett, who fared well enough in high school to get on the recruiting radar at the University of Southern California, where Jackson also played. When former University of Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, now the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, told Jackson he was going back to Junipero Serra to recruit Burnett, Jackson quickly endorsed the move.

“There were not a lot of guys that were that smooth and fluid (as Deontay). Then, he came to SC. It was a no-brainer. When he got on that roster, I told them, ‘You best believe he’s going to be that next guy.’ I told Tee that and told (Clay) Helton that, and he had 1,000 yards both years,” Jackson remembers.

“Tee was telling me he was going to offer him, and I told him, ‘If you do, you’re gonna get a good one.’

“He ended up going to SC and he was great there.”

Burnett became Sam Darnold’s top target at USC, catching 86 passes in 2017 before deciding to declare for the NFL draft as a 20-year-old junior, only to be disappointed when his name wasn’t called.

“It was a decision with my family, but I’m here now and I’m focused on the Tennessee Titans and being ready when my number is called,” Burnett said.

With such solid credentials, it begs the question of exactly how did Burnett fall all the way through the draft without being selected?

Burnett tore a hamstring that kept him from running at the NFL Combine. When it healed enough to allow Burnett to try and run at his pro day, he logged a disappointing 4.7 time in the 40. Add that to his slight frame – he’s listed at 6-0, 186 by the Titans – and it played a part in Burnett tumbling from productive college player to undrafted status.

“I’m not the type of guy to just blame stuff on why things happen,” Burnett says. “It was a tough deal, but I’m here and that’s the biggest thing I’m here and I have to focus on now, because that’s in the past. I’ve just got to take care of it.”

Now he’s one of 12 receivers in Titans camp vying to be one of the final five or six spots on the 53-man roster. Burnett knows he faces a tough challenge, but he has displayed sure hands in practice. That carried over with three receptions in the preseason opener at Green Bay.

He has flashed steady hands and crisp route-running in camp while operating mostly from the slot receiver spot and in bunch formations. If anything, Burnett’s age might be the one thing working against him and just how ready the receiver might be at 20 years old to handle the rigors of NFL life.

“We talked about his maturity and his strength, because he has a skill set. He’s got good quickness. He’s got good savvy route-running ability,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel says.

“He’s working hard. … It can always be better. We’re always harping on that, and just the little things – staying focused and taking care of the details and understanding what it means to be a professional. We’ll help him through that and we’ll coach him through that.”

In making his own way, Burnett has the right attitude and approach.

“It’s all about preparing and then bringing your preparation to the field. The biggest thing for me is to prepare like it’s a game every day, so that when I come out here, I know what to do,” he says.

And he has a fan and a supporter in Jackson – up to a point, at least.

“People asked, and I said, ‘He’s going to catch everything. He’s a sure-handed guy,’” Jackson says. “Out there in practice, and his hand goes up for the ball, it’s like I’m on two sides of the fence. I want to see him do good, but I’m on the defensive side, so I don’t want to see him do too good. But then it’s all about competition.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com

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