PANTHER PROFILE: Burkett’s ‘up-the-gut’ style making a difference for the Panthers

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Senior fullback Justin Burkett stares down a La Vernia defender during one of his 15 carries on the night. He finished the game with 101 yards and two touchdowns. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Senior fullback Justin Burkett stares down a La Vernia defender during one of his 15 carries on the night. He finished the game with 101 yards and two touchdowns. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

If you’ve watched any Panther football over the past two seasons, you’ve likely noticed number 45. Senior Justin Burkett, a 5’10”, 220-pound fullback, is incredibly hard to miss.

Both his Head Coach, Jerry Vance, and one of his partners in the backfield, sophomore running back Kyle Harrison, have referred to him as “Moose,” a nickname that fits him to a T.

One video, in particular, comes to mind when describing Burkett’s style of play. A viral video that garnered more than 1.5 million views on YouTube shows a moose running through packed snow, piled up to its shoulders, which the moose completely disregards as it runs directly through it in a straight line, creating a wake of snow behind it without looking back. Burkett’s running style could be described exactly the same.

“They call me a lot of nicknames, but that’s one of ‘em,” Burkett said.

On two separate occasions during Friday night’s game against La Vernia, “The Big Hammer” (another one of his nicknames) ran up the middle and was met by some unlucky defenders. What followed looked like something out of a cartoon. Burkett carried what must have been at least four defenders on his back for another six or seven yards, and he made it look easy. It was almost as if he enjoyed it.

“I can’t outrun ‘em, so I’ve got to do something,” Burkett said in response to a question about whether or not he purposely seeks out contact.

Although Burkett, a former linebacker, may not be able to outrun most defenders in the open field, he has an entire committee of running backs in the backfield with him who can. Quicker halfbacks like Freddie White, Reid Sanders, and Kyle Harrison are able to mix up the running game with pitches and handoffs to the outside, keeping the defense honest.

“It gets ‘em on their toes,” Burkett said, “because they have to be ready for those quick backs, and I just come through and plow through ‘em.”

Coach Vance echoed that statement, reinforcing the fact that switching between Burkett’s up-the-gut style of play and the quicker halfback runs to the outside can confuse defenses, giving Burkett more opportunities for big plays up the middle.

“They can’t stay outside,” Vance said, “because we’ve got this big moose in the middle trying to run.”

Last Friday against La Vernia, Burkett finished with 101 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. He says the experience is nothing new, considering his opportunity last year after the Panthers’ starting running back went down with an injury.

“I had six, or five, in a row last year,” Burkett said, regarding his hundred-yard rushing game. “I’m definitely getting more carries this year, but I got a lot of playing time (last year) because the guy in front of me got hurt.”

Burkett will look for his second hundred-yard game in a row on Friday against the Brownwood Lions’ defense, a defense that Coach Vance believes is one of the best they’ll face this season.

“This is the best team we’ve seen so far,” Vance said. “They’re faster, they’re more physical, and they fly to the football.”

Burkett has watched film on the Lions, and knows their gifted athletes on defense will pose some problems, but he still plans on being the “moose” that he has been for the past two seasons.

“They’re strong, they’re fast, they’ll give us a challenge,” Burkett said.

Burkett could not care less about the defenses he faces from week to week. He’ll play his game the same way he always has. He will hit you, he will hit your teammates, and he will continue to seek out contact from defenders, dishing out punishment to those that dare to get in his way.

“Yes,” he said, bluntly, when asked if he planned to bully Brownwood’s defense as easily as he did La Vernia’s. “Yes, I do plan on it.”

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