Burney finds niche in UNC secondary

Staff WriterNovember 18, 2009 

— One of the first text messages that North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney received after his three-interception performance Saturday came from Tar Heels baseball coach Mike Fox.

"It just said, 'Wow,' " recalled Burney, a junior from Jacksonville. "He knew I had it in me, but he just didn't know I was going to be that good."

Actually, when he opted to give up baseball, his first love, no one knew that the 5-foot-9 former outfielder would end up leading the football team in interceptions (four) this season, or that he would earn Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in UNC's 33-24 win over Miami.

Not even Burney, now captaining the ACC's top defense, saw this coming.

After the congenial speedster played in 14 baseball games in 2007 and 2008, and started 12 football games in 2007, UNC football coach Butch Davis urged him to make a choice. Playing baseball in the spring overlapped with crucial March football practices, and for an athlete still learning the fundamentals of playing cornerback at the NCAA's Division I level, Burney knew he needed to focus on one sport or the other.

He had come to Chapel Hill on a football scholarship, and UNC's football coaches told him that perhaps he had a chance to play professionally in the future if he buckled down and put all his passion into that sport. So he gave up baseball, but even as Burney began last football season, he remained torn.

"I thought that I gave up the wrong thing, to tell you the truth, because the reason that I came here was baseball," he said.

That unease finally started to wane last October, when Burney snagged two interceptions in a 45-24 UNC victory over Boston College, which will host the Tar Heels this Saturday in a rematch of two teams battling for bowl position.

The backpedaling that he never had to learn in high school - he played quarterback primarily before arriving at North Carolina - was finally coming naturally. He was reading offenses better, and he was getting his hands on more passes.

Then after one of his interceptions against the Eagles, he looked toward the stands and saw the entire UNC baseball team behind the end zone, cheering. And everything finally fell into place.

"It kind of made me put into perspective, 'This is where I need to be. Everybody accepts the fact that I need to be here [playing football],' and it lifted me, took a whole bunch of stuff off my back," he said.

Since then, he's only continued to improve - often making friendly bets with Davis over how many passes he can get his hands on during practice

"I'm trying to set the bar high enough that he doesn't win, but a lot of times he wins," Davis said, smiling. "...The more effort and energy that he's put into it, and the focus of his work over the last two years, he reaps the benefits, because he's got real playmaking instincts. He's got a real good gift at diagnosing routes, realizing where the threats are, and making plays on the ball. He's got outstanding hands."

It has helped, too, Burney said, that he still has the support of his former baseball teammates. During the spring, he sometimes sneaks over to Boshamer Stadium to shag a few fly balls. He still meets his former outfield-mates for lunch.

And Fox, who texts him before or after almost every football game, remains one of his biggest fans.

"K.B, he's a great athlete - and he could have been a really good baseball player," Fox said. "I know he struggled with his decision, but in the end, he made the right one.

"I keep telling him not to forget me when he's playing on Sundays; going to a game at Lambeau Field is on my 'Bucket List.' And I have a feeling he may be able to get me there."

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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