Amari Burney was honest when assessing his performance through two games of the 2020 season.
The Florida Gators linebacker met with the media on Monday night and set the parameters for what he's called an "unacceptable" performance and how he looks to improve moving forward.
"I like it, but I've got to step it up," Burney said about playing the position. "These past two weeks have been unacceptable for me, personally. You know, just talking with the coaches, my parents, watching film, it's been unacceptable on my part just being a starter and not doing my job."
Burney has taken on the starting MONEY, weak-side linebacker role in Florida's defense. He takes occasional snaps as a STAR nickel cornerback, a position he spent much more time at throughout the 2019 season and the end of his freshman campaign in 2018. Burney originally enrolled as a safety, but the Gators' coaching staff saw a player that could play a bit closer to the line when he took the field.
"They kinda see me as a big-body, so they moved me to Star to really make plays with the run game and cover a little bit," said Burney. "And then my sophomore year I played Star and linebacker, but then this year, you know they felt like we needed somebody that can cover very well, cause we're gonna run a little bit of different schemes. So we kind of moved me to inside linebacker."
The logic is there. Having played safety and STAR, Burney has shown that he can cover in the past and instincts as a run defender. The issue: The coronavirus pandemic eliminated bountiful opportunities for Burney to get used to playing linebacker full-time, taking away spring camp and restricting fall practices as well. He's never been a three-down player in his college career and had to adjust to that role on the fly.
In return, it's been a rough outing thus far for Burney through two games. Our film study of the week will be his performance against South Carolina from this past weekend, the good and the bad, and discuss how Burney can grow from here.
Burney played 52 defensive snaps against South Carolina, down from his 82 against Ole Miss, where he had some issues in coverage as noted in our week one film study.
Those remained apparent against the Gamecocks, most obviously the touchdown allowed on a fourth-quarter (10:21, 2nd and 9) angle route by running back Kevin Harris. Burney had his eyes in the backfield as the play began but began stretching outside. It looked to be in response to an inside release from the lone back-side receiver, but it could have also been anticipating a wheel route from Harris. At one point he had his hips and feet pointed towards the sideline completely, and Harris took advantage by breaking inside as soon as he got around Jeremiah Moon on the edge.
Kaiir Elam was able to trail the outside receiver and had looks to the backfield in case of a wheel, and had safety held overtop from Trey Dean III. Burney didn't need to turn his back to the middle of the field to help the outside, and he paid for doing it. South Carolina narrowed the game to 14 points with 10:21 left in the game.
South Carolina got the ball back with 8:05 remaining, but poor clock management led to a turnover on downs for that drive, with only 46 seconds left. On the second play that drive, Burney made a solid pass breakup while hovering a bunch set with Kaiir Elam. Burney didn't get too deep in his pedal, got flat-footed to read out the routes in front of him and the quarterback's eyes, and broke on an outside hitch cleanly. Closing the cushion before the ball got to the receiver, Burney timed his attack on the ball perfectly to break up the pass without drawing a pass interference or being late.
Those are the types of plays we want to see Burney make more consistently, and he's capable. Burney has coverage instincts and the athleticism to make plays on the ball - he's done it in the past for the Gators, too. It seems like it's been a tougher transition to cover within the tackle box compared to in the space and flats, simply put.
In the second quarter (14:32), Burney got beat working inside in man coverage on a post route by tight end Keveon Mullins, as it looked like Burney kept his eyes on the underneath crosser that Dean took responsibility for. Quarterback Collin Hill had a window to hit Mullins as Elam began creeping back downhill, but instead threw an incomplete pass to Shi Smith.
Burney has operated well in space as a run defender in the past as well, but he's struggled with his angles and shooting towards rushing gaps too early. On the first drive of the game (12:22, 2nd and 5), middle linebacker Ventrell Miller signals Burney to slide over to the backside of the play. Hill got the snap off quickly as Burney shifted, handing the ball off to Harris who began up the middle and bounced outside as defensive tackle Zachary Carter pushed the center back into the rush lane.
Burney followed Carter into the A gap, leaving the backside open as cornerback Kaiir Elam was being blocked and safety Donovan Stiner was 13 yards off of the line of scrimmage. Harris gained 11 yards and a first down.
Another similar play happened later in the drive (10:24, 1st and 10 in the redzone). Burney, lined up over the center again, sniffs out the pulling right guard and attacks the backside C-gap and lowered his head to pop the guard. Harris took advantage of the crease from Burney's early attack and no help from strong side thanks to down blocks from the left side of the line, and scooted right past Burney for a gain of six to the seven-yard line.
Another came in the second quarter (11:57, 2nd and 10). Burney is the play side linebacker and he attacks a double-team pull from the center and right guard before Harris ever dictates where he's bouncing this run. He takes advantage of Burney removing himself from a potential stop, bounces outside, and converts.
Despite all of this, we've seen Burney diagnose runs well in the past outside of the tackle box, and come down to lay the hammer. In the first quarter of the Orange Bowl, he took over the edge from six yards off the line at STAR, coming down to deliver a big hit on Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins, for example.
Burney's issues truly seem to be related to his assignments, not necessarily skill-set. He has the size and athleticism to play linebacker, at least on coverage downs, and we've seen some semblance of physicality to suggest he could take on the run within the box. As he gets more accustomed to the position, perhaps he'll improve in these departments.
It wouldn't be easy for Florida to leave Burney off the field, either. The team values its rotation across the board and he's shown the talent throughout his career to at least contend for a role on third downs.
Maybe he's out of position. Maybe he just needs more time after, almost undoubtedly, the craziest offseason in college football history, to adjust to the linebacker spot. One way or another, Florida should have a better feel for his development at linebacker after back-to-back ranked contests, this Saturday at No. 21 Texas A&M and the week after at home vs. No. 17 LSU.