GAINESVILLE — As Florida’s 2018 season neared its end, the Gators kept raving about a freshman defender poised to break out.
By the time the Peach Bowl ended with a thumping of Michigan, it was obvious why. The Calvary Christian product broke up a pass to help thwart one Wolverines drive and ended another with the first sack of his career, a third-down blitz from the secondary.
“It built my confidence coming into later in the season, just making a play like that on national TV, having everybody talk about it ...” Burney said.
Three and a half months later, the Gators are still talking up Burney, who will be one of the most interesting players to watch in Saturday’s spring game.
“Amari’s a beast,” NFL-bound linebacker Vosean Joseph said.
Burney was a beast in high school, too.
He was a do-it-all talent who started at defensive line as a freshman before moving back to linebacker and safety. On offense, he racked up 12 touchdowns and almost 1,000 receiving yards.
UF knew the four-star recruit was talented and had a chance to contribute immediately. The only question: Where?
The Gators first put Burney at special teams and defensive back, where he played most of his 12 games last season. He probably could have been the long-term replacement at STAR defensive back for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who left early for the draft.
But by the regular season finale of his true freshman season, UF was trying him at linebacker, where the 6-foot-2, 220-pound athlete is big enough to dole out hits and quick enough to fly around the field.
“He can do whatever, man,” linebacker David Reese said. “He’s probably one of our fastest guys on our team — like, the whole defense.”
That speed allowed him to succeed in his limited linebacker action last year, when he focused on covering running backs or tight ends on passing downs. The move became official when coaches told Burney to go with the linebackers at the start of offseason workouts.
That doesn’t mean the move is permanent. Although Burney said he has spent all spring at the new position, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he could move around, if necessary.
“By him going (to linebacker), it allows us to get good speed on the field, work to get our best 11 players on the field,” Grantham said. “Also gives us flexibility. He could easily go back and play STAR if he had to.”
For now, Burney is preparing to contribute at linebacker. He added a couple pounds and focused on bulking up his arms and legs to prepare for more contact with bigger bodies near the line of scrimmage.
He can still cover, too; at a recent practice, he slid outside to shadow a receiver and still goes against receiving tight ends. But he’s learning new responsibilities, too, like what to do with a pulling guard and where he fits into the schemes in run-stopping.
“They’re just teaching me the new plays, new position,” Burney said. “I feel comfortable with it.”
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
Orange and Blue Game, 1, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium