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Meet Mr. Burns

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If a highlight tape means anything – and some scouts will argue that it doesn’t – Pitt found the hidden gem of its 2008 recruiting class in Wilmington tailback Chris Burns.

Pitt was the first school to offer Burns a scholarship, and he made a verbal commitment to the Panthers today.

“I definitely feel under the radar,” said Burns, who has received interest from Akron, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Syracuse and Temple. “I read stuff in the paper talking about ‘PA’s hidden secret.’ It seems like I do stuff and never get recognized. I use it to motivate me on Friday nights.”

Wilmington coach Terry Verrelli is the first to admit he is lagging behind on sending the tapes out. For that reason, only a few programs have their hands on them. Pitt is one of them, so I got a chance to see Burns Tuesday.

In it, the 5-foot-10, 187-pound Burns makes several dazzling runs. He has the innate ability to make people miss or spin out of oncoming traffic. In football jargon, he can make you miss in a phone booth.

The most outstanding play on Burns’ tape came against Sharon, when he showcases all of his abilities in a stop-and-rewind play. He cuts back, then spins into a defender who tries to tackle him low. Burns flips over the tackler, plants his hand and scoots into the end zone for a touchdown.

“I just saw a hole and cut up. I went to cut back and there was someone coming from that angle, so I spun. The safety came down and tried to drop me. I caught my balance and put my hand down and somehow got into the end zone,” Burns said. “I think they just gave up on the play and I didn’t.”

Burns rushed for 1,364 yards and scored 25 touchdowns last season, but was named second-team all-state in Class AA at cornerback. For that reason, some believe he might be destined to play defense.

Trust me, Pitt recruited him as a tailback. Burns has uncanny instincts to play the position and is blessed with unbelievable balance. And he actually works on getting better at those traits.

“It’s definitely God-given. I just amplify those God-given talents,” Burns said. “It’s a natural ability, but I always work on making cuts and want to get faster. Even if I’m just walking up stairs, I try to run up fast.”

Burns was recruited by offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, and visited the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side each of the past two weekends to meet the coaching and support staffs.

“We went to Blue Chip Day and got to tour the campus. I got to see the tutoring program and met with the chaplain. Religion is definitely a big part of my life, along with academics,” Burns said. “It really doesn’t get any better than Pitt. It’s close to home. It’s good football. And they run the ball, which is always good.”

Don’t underestimate the role Pitt team chaplain Robert Brooks played in the decision. Brooks is as affable and outgoing as anyone on the staff, while Burns is a B-average student who belongs to the New Life Baptist Church in New Wilmington and is involved with its youth group and children ministry.

“You don’t want to get caught up in anything,” Burns said. “I need to get myself in a church-oriented activity to stay on track.”

Burns also has a talented younger brother, Derrick, who started at linebacker for Wilmington as a freshman last fall. Which makes for an interesting parallel. Burns might end up competing at tailback with Kevin Collier, whose brother, Averin, is considered New York’s top junior.

Burns doesn’t mind competition at tailback.

“That really doesn’t bother me because you’re going to have competition,” Burns said. “I take it as a challenge. I’m not just going to walk in there and have a spot. You have to work as hard as you can.”

In fact, Burns said Pitt coaches told him they plan to sign two running backs in the Class of 2008. The other one very well could be Averin Collier.

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