BOCA RATON – After a quiet freshman season where injuries limited his play, sophomore Khantrell Burden is preparing for FAU’s Sept. 3 kickoff against Southern Illinois as a first-time starter on the Owls’ defense.
Talking to the second-year linebacker, though, it’d be easy to mistake him for someone who started the majority of the Owls’ 2015 season.
“There’s no pressure at all, no anxiety,” Burden said.
A sophomore, Burden certainly has left many of the frustrations of an injury-filled freshman year behind him – doing so at an important time for FAU linebacker unit. The Owls expected to have starter Robert Relf, who missed nearly all of 2015 because of a shoulder injury, return to his starting strong side linebacker only to announce prior to camp that injuries prematurely ended Relf’s career.
The loss of Relf placed a greater importance on Burden’s development. He’s rising to the challenge.
“This year he’s attacking it and his talent is really coming out,” FAU coach Charlie Partridge said. “He’s one of our best players at a combat weapon we call the edge – which is tight wrists, tight elbows, separation and beat a block. He’s one of the best at that and it’s led to him making a lot of plays, and he’s somewhat sharper on his assignments. It’s fun to watch him.”
Having played last season at a listed weight of 205, Burden said that he bulked up to roughly 220 pounds. This puts him at a comparable size to fellow starting linebackers Azeez Al-Shaair (220 pounds) and Nate Ozdemir (230 pounds).
Increasing his durability – a preseason knee injury followed by a late-season concussion limited his availabilty last season – and ensuring he was on the field as much as possible was not only a goal for Burden himself, but also for Partridge and the coaches.
“He’s hydrating better,” Partridge said. “He’s pre-habing better. He’s sleeping better. All those things lead to better recovery which leads to better health.”
Burden’s rapid development has helped solidify what was a shallow and untested linebacker unit last season, making it a group that is becoming increasingly more formidable.
His improvement will allow FAU to employ its base 4-3 defense more frequently this season, whereas last year the Owls often defaulted to a nickel package that replaced one of the linebackers with a defensive back.
“We’ve gotten better at being brothers and being savages,” Burden said. “We always know that being savages leads to being the best on the football field.”
Burden credits former Florida Atlantic cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc, now in the NFL with the New England Patriots, with helping him adjust to college football.
One year later, Burden is comfortable enough with his role that he’s becoming a mentor.
“Cre’von and the others who graduated, they taught me to always bring the young guys up, help them grow the way they helped me grow,” Burden said. “Show them something and make sure they can relate.”
Burden is trying to do exactly that with true freshman Rashad Smith, who begins the season as Burden’s backup.
The coaching of third-year defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Roc Bellanton, in Burden’s eyes, also has helped bring the group closer together.
“We all have a great bond — we’re always teaching each other — and whatever year we are in college, we treat each other as if we’re the same age,” Burden said. “Coach Roc is a great dude who’s taught me a lot, taught us all a lot, and we’ve all really grown from him.”