Aug. 4, 2008
For the first time in the history of the UCF football program, the Knights had a representative at ESPN's Home Depot College Football Awards Show in 2007. Junior running back Kevin Smith was invited to attend after being named an All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
One of his invited guests that attended the festivities with UCF's all-time leading rusher that night was his teammate and close friend Joe Burnett. The Eustis native was in awe of being around the greats in college football, not only from that season, but from years past as well.
Burnett walked out of the Atlantic Dance Hall at Disney's Boardwalk wanting to be invited back again for the 2008 show, only this time he wanted to be in Smith's shoes. Burnett walked to the car with Smith and Ed Marynowitz, the Knights' former director of player personnel, vouching to work hard enough to earn his own invitation back to ESPN's 18th annual show this year.
"One of my individual goals for my senior year is to win the Jim Thorpe Award," Burnett said. "But I also know that individual honors don't come unless you have team success and I saw that last year with Kevin. We want to win back-to-back conference championships and everything else that comes with it will take care of itself."
The finalists for each of college football's major individual awards are invited to the show each year and Burnett paid special attention to the announcement of the 2007 Thorpe Award, which went to Arizona senior cornerback Antoine Cason.
The Thorpe Award is given annually to the nation's top defensive back, and on July 7 the Jim Thorpe Association announced its annual `watch list'. Burnett was one of 40 defensive backs in the nation named to the preseason list.
"Joe has been a four-year starter for us and right from his freshman year on he's been a preseason All-American," head coach George O'Leary said. "Again, I think he's done nothing to dispel that. He's going into his fourth year and is just a great athlete who has a great knack for the ball. He's had a heck of a career so far."
The Thorpe Award watch list was actually the third watch list Burnett found his name on during the summer, but when asked which one he coveted the most, he had a quick response. "The Thorpe Award is the one I really want," Burnett said. "That's one of the reasons I came back."
Burnett is also on the Bronco Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award `watch lists'. Both of those awards are given annually to the nation's top defensive player.
All of this preseason hype was nearly for naught after Burnett announced in January that he would test the NFL Draft waters. After a lot of investigation and discussion with close friends and family members, the first-team All-Conference USA performer opted to return for his senior season.
"I sent in the petition and did not get the grade back that I wanted," Burnett said. "It was a fourth-round grade and I wanted to go higher. I decided to come back for my senior season and hopefully improve my stock. I graduate in December, so I'll also get my degree and that is important to me as well."
His cornerback play is not the only part of Burnett's game that is warranting preseason attention. Even though there is not an award for the nation's top special teams player, he would likely find his name on a list of the nation's best in that category as well.
For the second-consecutive year, the 12 head coaches in C-USA named Burnett the league's preseason Special Teams Player of the Year. "Coach Huxtable always tells us that special teams is always your first play, so I'd have to consider myself a punt returner before anything else, but I know I enjoy being out on an island at cornerback."
Successful at both positions, Burnett has already emblazoned his name in the records section of the UCF Football Yearbook as both a cornerback and a punt returner. He ranks second on the career charts with 12 interceptions - a total that ranks him second among active returners in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision this year.
Burnett's total is only one shy of Keith Evans, who holds the record after picking off 13 passes for the Knights from 1986-88. Burnett and Evans also are the only two players in program history to pick off at least two passes in two separate games during their careers.
As a punt returner, Burnett has already shattered the school's all-time mark for punt return yardage with 929 yards entering his senior campaign. That is already 200 more yards than the next closest name in the record books (Mike Dickinson, 717; 1989-92).
His prowess is so well-respected that Tulsa head coach Todd Graham told him at the C-USA Football Blitz in late July not to expect his Golden Hurricane team to kick to him at all this year when the teams meet on Oct. 26 in Tulsa. Graham has witnessed first-hand two of Burnett's three career punt returns for scores. Both have come in the C-USA title games in 2005 and 2007.
Aptly nicknamed `Smokin' Joe', his three punt return scores are tied for the most among any active player in the FBS, and his career-yardage total and career average of 13.3 yards per return also are tops among returners.
Along with the individual accolades and the chance to improve his draft status, Burnett decided to play one more season at UCF because of the chemistry he has developed with his veteran secondary mates. That quartet has combined for 134 starts and 35 interceptions during their respective careers at UCF.
One of the members of the quartet, Johnell Neal, has had to work extra hard this summer to get back to the playing field and Burnett has been there to support his teammate through it all. Neal was shot four times in an ambush attack in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., on May 9. Neal, who tied Burnett for the C-USA lead with six interceptions a year ago, was home to celebrate his recent graduation with family and friends, and his status for the first month after the shooting was unclear.
"That was my first question. Would he be able to play?" Burnett said. "I think it is a blessing. I think he is blessed to have taken four shots and even be able to get out of the hospital. Now, he is back working out and conditioning with us. I am amazed how quickly he bounced back from this and it is a blessing from the Lord above."
With Neal back at 100 percent, Burnett is assured of being able to play his senior campaign with three of his closest friends on the team and he admits that is going to make this year even more memorable.
"That is going to be very special," Burnett added. "It is really good to see that he will back with us in the secondary. It feels great to have all four of us seniors back there this season ready to compete for another championship."
This story appears in the August edition of KnightVision. Produced 10 times per year, KnightVision is the official publication of UCF Athletics. Each issue includes stories about UCF teams, student-athletes and coaches. To order 10 exciting issues from August through June, call 1-888-877-4373 (ext. 121) or 336-768-3400 (ext. 121).