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Quentin Burrell: The battle-tested veteran

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 12, 2004

Quentin Burrell made 90 tackles and seven interceptions in his senior season at Southwest DeKalb High School. He broke up 13 passes.

But when he came to Notre Dame, Burrell waited.

Recruited by a team already ripe with secondary talent in Gerome Sapp, Glenn Earl, Shane Walton and Vontez Duff, the Georgia Class 5A all-state honorable mention selection was relegated to special teams under head coach Bob Davie.

“My freshman year and my sophomore year I was kind of just playing my role,” Burrell said. “There were a lot of upperclassmen, especially in the secondary, with a lot of experience so it was kind of like a wait your turn deal.”

Now, going into his final game at Notre Dame Stadium facing Pittsburgh on Saturday, Burrell finds himself starting at free safety for the 19th time in the past two seasons.

Burrell was, after all, the most experienced member of the defensive backfield going into the 2004 season. And that makes him, unofficially, the leader.

“I think he’s handled the responsibility well,” defensive backs coach Steven Wilks said. “He’s been consistent all year.”

Burrell is third on the team with 56 tackles and 30 solo, and he made four tackles last Saturday in an upset of top-10 ranked Tennessee.

“I can really tell you the last three weeks, he has really stepped his game up,” Wilks said. “I’m talking about the way he plays, the way he’s practicing. He’s diving for balls in practice. He’s trying to make great decisions in reading the quarterback. So I’ve seen great improvement in Quentin throughout the year, but most importantly he’s stepped up and been the leader.”

The process of reaching the starting safety position was an unmapped one, but Burrell felt the opportunity to showcase his skills would have to come sooner or later.

“Going into my junior year I knew I didn’t have much time left,” he said. “My clock was ticking. So I needed to do something.”

And then, Glenn Earl got hurt.

Thrust into the spotlight

In the midst of a 23-10 loss to Purdue, Notre Dame fans were distraught. They complained that a freshman quarterback should never throw that many passes (59) in a game, or that no team should lose when it out-gains its opponent that badly (346 Notre Dame to 223 for Purdue).

Burrell’s introduction to the Notre Dame defense in replacement of Earl, who saw limited action afterward, was glanced over. He would go on to make five tackles and his first career tackle for a loss that day.

But Burrell’s presence the remainder of the season was not overlooked.

Burrell started the last nine games of the season, finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 58 (39 solos) and logging over 265 minutes played. Those numbers compared in a lopsided fashion with his statistics of 2002 (two tackles, 41 seconds).

“I knew my main thing was getting healthy because I had a lot of nicks and knacks there,” Burrell said. “It was unfortunate that Glenn got hurt, but at the same time I looked at it as an opportunity to step up and do things that I knew I could do when I came here. So I looked at it as an opportunity. And once I had that opportunity I just took it and ran with it.”

Stanford found out better than any team how Burrell could run with it.

With Notre Dame up 27-0 on a bewildered Cardinal team Nov. 29, 2003, Burrell scooped up a Stanford fumble and took the ball back 65 yards for the touchdown, his first ever score in a Notre Dame uniform.

He also intercepted Stanford Chris Lewis once that day, but Burrell said the fumble recovery was his most memorable moment as an Irish defender.

“As far as performance on the field, I would maybe say the Stanford game from last year,” Burrell said. “I had an interception in that game and I took a fumble back like 70-some yards.”

But Burrell’s memories are not all good ones.

Taking the bad with the good

There was the Syracuse game Dec. 6 of last season, when Orangemen running back Walter Reyes beat Burrell to a spot 15 yards downfield to score his fourth of five touchdowns that day.

There was the BYU game to start the 2004 season, when the Cougars went deep on two key pass plays over Burrell and the secondary to score or set up backbreaking touchdowns.

Wilks knows the defensive backfield has struggled this season, but also knows Burrell is a key component in accomplishing the secondary’s goals. He helped the defense hold Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards without a touchdown, and he leads the secondary in tackles, albeit quietly.

“With our defense and the way we invert our safeties a lot, [making tackles quietly] is going to happen as far as making plays,” Wilks said. “At times we’ve missed some [plays] and they were crucial ones, but for the most part I feel he’s stepped up his game.”

Going from 48 special teams appearances his freshman year, to 141 appearances as a sophomore showed Burrell he had the opportunity to make an impact soon on the team. And since he did not have the minutes to show coaches his talents in game situations, the next best option was to impress them in practice.

“I think the thing was during the off-season and during spring ball, I think I had one of the best spring balls I’ve ever had here,” he said. “And the coaching staff took well to that. So once I got the opportunity, it was there for me.”

Burrell entered this season for the first time ever penciled in as the preseason starter. Being a senior, Burrell not only had to shoulder the preparation responsibilities of a starter. He also was part of a select group that could control the direction of the Irish team.

“Going into the season, I was talking to a lot of the upperclassmen. We’re really close,” Burrell said. “And we just didn’t want to have any regrets.

“We’ve lost some games we shouldn’t have lost, and we could be in the national championship basically if it went a certain way, but that’s over and done with. We’re bowl eligible now and we’ve got to look forward to going to a good bowl, a bowl that we deserve to be in, and we’ll just go from there.”

The game against Pittsburgh on Saturday will be Burrell’s last at Notre Dame, but the free safety said tears aren’t his style.

“[I] kind of, sort of [care], but I’m not going to get too emotional or anything like that,” Burrell said. “I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to come to this university, I did the things that could do here, and it’s just time to move on. I had a good time here, and it’s just another chapter in my life.”