Maryland defensive lineman Chandler Burkett was set to attend Florida International after he graduated from Deane Bozeman School (Panama City, Fla.) in 2013, but his plans were altered when FIU's head coach, Mario Cristobal, was let go after the 2012 season.
FIU took more than a month to hire its next coach, leaving Burkett in limbo. Burkett began circling back to schools he considered before committing to FIU in July 2012, such as Maryland, Florida Atlantic and Troy. Burkett visited College Park, Md., in January 2013.
"That was the only visit he took and he called us and said, ‘This is where I'm coming. I feel at home. I feel very comfortable. This is where I'm supposed to be,'" William Tillman, Burkett's high school coach, said. "And I said, ‘You know, everything happens for a reason.' The good Lord has a plan for us even when we don't know what that plan is, and I truly feel that was where Chandler was supposed to be the whole time."
Now, the 6-foot-3, 254-pound Burkett is in his fifth year in the Terps' program and his second year as starter for head coach DJ Durkin. Burkett began the 2017 season as Maryland's starting defensive end and has since become a key component in the Terps' effort to replace their top edge rusher.
Senior Jesse Aniebonam, Maryland's starting outside linebacker entering the season, suffered a fractured ankle during the Terps' 51-41 victory at Texas Sept. 2. Burkett shifted across the defensive line to start at outside linebacker against Towson Sept. 9, and since then he has played both positions for the Terps as the team makes strides defensively in Durkin's second year.
Durkin said in September that Maryland is "going to continue to play [Burkett] at more than one spot because that's what we need him to do and he's ready and willing," but it took Burkett a while to develop into such a reliable defender. In fact, Burkett's first start of his college career didn't come until his junior year at Indiana last October, and he responded with nine tackles.
"It was just kind of surreal," Burkett said of his first extended action on the field as a Terp last year, which included playing time in all 13 games, including eight as a starter. "You dream about it your whole life as a kid. Growing up, you want to be a football player [at the] college level, big-time football, and just getting out there and being able to do it is just awesome."
The latter stages of his upbringing were spent at Bozeman, where he played on the Bucks' varsity football team for four years. Tillman said he first noticed Burkett's physicality and explosion when, as a freshman, Burkett blew away a senior in a one-on-one drill. Burkett made plays in high school thanks in part to his speed; Tillman said he made a habit of running down tailbacks from the backside despite opponents trying to run away from him.
Tillman and his staff moved Burkett to middle linebacker for his senior season at Bozeman, a move Tillman called a "win-win." It meant opponents wouldn't be able to run away from Burkett, but also that Burkett would get valuable experience in pass coverage before playing college ball. Burkett made 122 tackles as a senior, including 15 for a loss, and scored a touchdown. He also played some on the other side of the ball.
"We'd put him at wideout and just let him block people on the edge," Tillman said. "Now that was really unfair right there for putting a young man that large [at receiver], because he was so quick, he was so fast that we could get him out there and he could block the other people in space."
Burkett redshirted as a freshman at Maryland during the fall of 2013, barely played in 2014, then played sparingly during eight games in 2015, head coach Randy Edsall's final season with the program. Burkett noted the Terps' defensive line was a tough rotation to crack when he was younger, thanks in part to fellow edge defenders Aniebonam and Yannick Ngakoue (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars), though he believes the competition ultimately made him a better player.
Burkett's breakthrough came last year, when he posted 32 tackles, two sacks and three pass breakups. Maryland hired Jimmy Brumbaugh as its new defensive line coach this spring, and Brumbaugh's message would later help Burkett juggle responsibilities as a defensive end and outside linebacker, the two positions on the edges of the Terps' defensive line.
"I think when Coach Brumbaugh came in here this past spring," said Brett Kulka, a junior defensive lineman and friend of Burkett, "that was one thing he really emphasized was: as a D-line, we need to learn every position on the D-line for situations like this, when someone goes down so someone can just go right in and play. Being able to do that has really allowed him to go and not really lose anything; just be able to go play, and he's done a good job with it so far."
As Burkett explains it, the outside linebacker position is "basically like a hybrid" and the player can be responsible for rushing the passer, dropping into coverage or taking on run blocks. Whether a Terps outside linebacker is mostly asked to rush the passer or play coverage is a "week-by-week thing; different schemes, different teams you play, you're going to be asked to do different things," Burkett said. He also said players aren't asked to drop back in coverage as much at defensive end, but they take on run blocks just the same.
Whether he's at outside linebacker or end, Burkett has a key role in Maryland's run defense as a player that helps set the edge, which is important so that a running back can't pick up chunks of yardage on the outside. The Terps allowed 214.8 yards per game on the ground last year, the fourth-worst mark in the Big Ten. They've gotten off to a better start this year, holding Texas to 98 yards rushing Sept. 2 and Minnesota to 80 yards rushing Sept. 30.
Burkett credited Brumbaugh with stressing certain visual cues that help defensive linemen understand how they're supposed to engage an offensive lineman when defending the run, but Burkett's infectious energy helps him, too.
"I have never seen someone so happy to come in and play, and he's just always running to the ball," Kulka said. "It's like he's never getting tired. He's like an Energizer Bunny, always ready to go. It's been fun to watch and it's fun to have that rub off on me a little bit, too."
Issue 238: October 2017