When Alabama linebacker Denzel Devall turned on the Michigan State film this past month, he couldn’t help but notice wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. There were more than a couple of clips that made Devall raise his eyebrows and punch the rewind button.
"Oh man, he’s a playmaker," Devall said Monday morning. "They like to give him the ball, and when he gets it in his hands, there is no telling what he can do. I’ve seen him make tough, difficult catches where I’m like, 'How in the world did he catch that?' They like to give him the ball. He’s going to be a pretty good threat to us."
A few minutes later, sitting in the same corner of a Dallas hotel ballroom, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook nodded and smiled knowingly. Burbridge might be Michigan State’s best-suited weapon for finding a chink in the armor of the mighty Alabama defense. The Detroit native has had a breakout senior season with 1,219 yards and a school-record 80 catches. The yardage total is more than his first three years combined. His team has searched for more and more ways to get the ball in his hands as the season has progressed. The circus catches, though, are nothing new.
Cook said acrobatic grabs and spin moves like the ones he made this season are routine during practice. Whether it’s in individual drills or team sessions, Burbridge usually turns heads and adds to the list of how’d-he-do-thats once per practice, according to his quarterback. So when was the last time Cook can remember being impressed by something Burbridge did on the field?
"Yesterday," he said. "I was rolling left, threw him a hitch route and it was a little high, and the ball was thrown really hard, too. He goes up there and snags it with one hand and brings it in, doesn’t even use the other hand. He’s playing at a very high level."
The potential for Burbridge to be a special player was evident as a true freshman when he racked up 134 receiving yards and had a couple of eye-popping catches against Indiana six games into his college career. It would be three more years, though, before he had the confidence level and the comfort in Michigan State’s system to produce those kinds of numbers on a regular basis.
Burbridge remembers relying on veteran receivers like Bennie Fowler to keep him pointed in the right direction. Fowler would tell Burbridge and fellow freshman receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. that he was looking forward to the day when they were the ones directing traffic for another group of clueless rookies.
"I was thinking in my head, 'That’s never going to happen. I don’t know what I’m doing,'" Burbridge said.
It wasn’t until his junior season that Burbridge felt he knew the answers. And it wasn’t until this past spring, when former star receiver Tony Lippett left for the NFL, that he started really getting the questions. Having to be the leader of the receiver group and help some of the younger guys along was the boost Burbridge was missing. His confidence exploded during the spring, and the results have followed.
Burbridge said the chemistry that he and Cook first started to develop on the second-string offense as freshmen jumped to another level during spring ball, even though Burbridge missed the last two weeks with a foot injury.
"We clicked a lot our freshman year, but this spring I felt like we had it," he said. "It was there."
When Burbridge clicks on the Alabama film there are plenty of double-take moments on that tape as well. He tends to speed over those and head toward his favorite reel from the Crimson Tide this season -- their 43-37 loss to Ole Miss in which the secondary allowed 341 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air.
"I watch that a lot," he said. "You’ve got to hit them in the mouth first. Then take shots at them."
The Alabama defense has stiffened significantly since then, but Burbridge is still "very confident" that he’ll be able to do some damage in the passing game Thursday night in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and possibly add one more head-turning grab to his collection.