Burrell walks on, makes the team at MTSU

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During his high school career at North Murray, Landon Burrell blossomed into one of the top receivers in north Georgia.

The 6’4” Burrell finished his senior year last year with 47 catches for 870 yards and seven touchdowns. He had a few college options, but ultimately decided to walk-on at Middle Tennessee State where he recently made the travel roster. He was on the sidelines during the team’s road loss at Army on Sept. 5.

“My senior year was fun, but really, after football was over I was trying to figure out where to go to college,” Burrell said. “I wanted to play football and had some small schools interested, but nowhere I really wanted to go. How I ended up here is Rhett McGowan, my cousin, played at Georgia with Dustin Royston, who is a graduate assistant here. He hit me up on Twitter and I sent my film. I didn’t  get a scholarship, but made the team.”

Making the team is the first step to his ultimate goal of being a scholarship player. In the meantime, being a walk-on means he has to fight and scrap for everything he gets, which he considers a blessing.

“I have a whole lot more to prove because they haven’t put their trust in me just yet,” Burrell said. “I have worked hard at it. It’s not easy. You have to pay for college, but that is something that comes with it. But I honestly think, right now, I prefer being a walk-on guy over a scholarship guy. We’re blue collar guys and we know it is all business every day.”

Coming into Murphreesboro, Burrell knew that he was a long shot to make the team. It was a “shot in the dark,” he said, to even give it a go. Fate seemed to be working against him from the start, as his report date changed twice and COVID-19 concerns threatened to shut the season down before it even got started. Nonetheless, he saw it through and is glad he did. His grandparents were able to help pay for school and he got $1,000 in academic scholarship money. Now that he’s made the team and is squared away, Burrell can focus on being a real student athlete. 

“Making the travel squad was really a great feeling,” Burrell said. “My coach handed me the scouting report on Army and said be ready, I could play. I was ready. It is a good feeling getting to travel.”

One of the few upsides to the COVID-19 crisis is that the NCAA chose to freeze player eligibility this year to account for virus fallout. In other words, Burrell is a true freshman this year and will be a true freshman again next year whether he plays one play or 100. 

“That’s great because it will give me a year of experience (without burning a redshirt),” he said.

Like any college kid, Burrell has had to adjust to college life. Football practices are shorter, he said, and more position focused than high school because guys are recruited to play only one position. Burrell is solely a receiver, so he gets his work done in practice and is free to go on to other things like working towards a speech pathology major.

“The biggest thing is the amount of time on my hands school-wise,” he said. “I do have a lot of free time, but a lot of time is spent towards school. Falling behind is not an option. The biggest thing is having to stay on top of school work with no room for error.”

When you’re a walk-on, every day is a job interview. If you don’t put forth effort in practice, you might not be back. If you don’t make the grades, you might not be back. When he first made the team, he and fellow walk-ons were assigned to the visitor’s locker room, he said. They aren’t really treated any differently, he said, but the walk-ons have definitely developed a bond with one another through shared experiences.

“We were in there cutting up, having fun with each other,” Burrell said. “We actually got moved today (Sept. 13) to the actual locker room because we have a home game this week, but we had a lot of fun together. We don’t look at each other any different; We work just the same as a scholarship guy. I have a strong bond with the other walk-ons.”

The only downside to the year, so far, has been the routine COVID-19 testing, which players have to submit to three times a week, but that’s part of life these days, he said. They are required to wear masks while in the facility, meeting rooms, or working out. They have to keep the required social distance parameters as well, which seems to be commonplace in college football today.

“I think we do a really good job here with COVID stuff,” Burrell said.

Week 1 didn’t work out so well for the Blue Raiders, as they fell 42-0 to Army and its vaunted option attack. The message in the locker room this week was simple, Burrell said: get better.

The Blue Raiders will have the chance to do just that this week against conference rival Troy. Burrell, with the No. 88 on his back, will be ready.

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