To opposing defenses, it may have seemed that Georgia Tech linebacker Julian Burnett was everywhere.
“You go against Julian, you have to bring your ‘A’ game,” said Tech guard Omoregie Uzzi, a frequent practice-field opponent of Burnett’s.
In a salute to the Yellow Jackets star and fan favorite whose career ended with a neck injury in last December’s Sun Bowl, his former teammates will attempt to create a similar illusion. Starting Monday, when the Jackets open the season against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., players will take turns, game by game, wearing Burnett’s No. 40 jersey.
“I feel like that’s just our way, as a senior class and also as the Georgia Tech football team, to acknowledge to him that we appreciate everything you did for us, wish you could be out there with us,” quarterback Tevin Washington said.
Washington hatched the idea after last season, shortly after the team learned that Burnett’s injury would prematurely end his career. After agreeing on it with other rising seniors, Washington and others approached Burnett with the idea.
“He was like, Yeah, yeah,” Washington said. “He really liked it.”
Burnett won undying respect and admiration from teammates with his passion for the game and all-out style. Despite being one of the smallest players on the team, Burnett led Tech in tackles in 2010 and 2011. He was named a team captain last season as a junior and was selected second-team All-ACC.
“Julian was probably one of the hardest hitters that I’ve ever gone against, period,” Uzzi said. “When Julian comes downhill, you know he’s going to bring it, every single time.”
The seniors left the decision on who will wear No. 40 in which game up to coach Paul Johnson, although the coach was under the impression that it was up to the seniors when asked about it Thursday. Johnson’s only restriction was that no offensive lineman could wear it, since NCAA rules state that at least five offensive linemen must wear jerseys between 50 and 79 on each snap.
“I’m kind of disappointed about that,” Uzzi said.
Any other player, offense or defense, can wear No. 40. There is no rule against switching jersey numbers over the course of the season.
Defensive end Izaan Cross would love to trade his 94 for 40 for one game.
“’Rambo’ is a big part the team, huge part of the team,” he said.
To Washington, wearing No. 40 would be no small gesture, and he hoped to be the first.
“To even try to emulate the things Julian does on the football field, just play with that passion and that fire, I think it would mean a lot,” he said.
Practically speaking, it won’t be too difficult for equipment manager Tom Conner to handle. For each set of jerseys, he ordered a 40 in every size from medium through triple extra large. All he has to do is pull the appropriate size when he finds out who will wear it.
To Conner, Burnett was not one who needed to be in new gloves and cleats.
“That’s kind of who he is,” Conner said. “He loved to hit, and he loved to play football.”
It is fitting, perhaps, that a player who didn’t primp will be honored by a quarterback and defensive end, among others, wearing a number atypical for their positions.
“As long as they get the jersey fit in my size, I think I’ll look fine,” Washington said. “It’s more of a thing for him. I don’t care about style points.”
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog