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Walk-on Tony Burnett goes from no-name to long-term option

Seriously, Monte Kiffin says -- no joke.

He didn't even know defensive back Tony Burnett's name when fall camp started in August.

But, in the span of about three months, Burnett went from walk-on afterthought to the team's second-leading tackler against Notre Dame and a potential starter at safety this week against UCLA.

Things like that tend to happen when -- as teammates enjoy recounting -- you spend each practice running up and down the field and impress coaches on special teams week in and week out.

So, no, Burnett's 10-tackle performance against the Fighting Irish isn't much of a surprise, the Trojans say.

"The average fan hasn't been able to see it, but we see him every day coming up flying full-speed and tackling, so it wasn't anything that I didn't expect," said safety Jawanza Starling. "We see it every day in practice."

Burnett, also a long and triple jumper for USC's track and field team, joined the team as a cornerback in August after defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron spotted him in Heritage Hall during the spring semester and struck up a conversation with him. Before long, he was moved to safety and was installed on special-teams units, where he accumulated nine tackles while playing in each of the first 11 games.

Recalls Kiffin: "All the sudden he's running a great flying-40 and covering these kickoffs and I talked to [John Baxter] about it. We started looking at the kid. Coach Garza started working with him and the next thing you know..."

Kiffin's voice trails off. He eventually continues: "You just gotta believe in the players -- you never know what they can do if you give them a chance. Everybody can do it, but he was given an opportunity and he did it."

Burnett, 20, played cornerback at Lakewood-area Mayfair High as a senior but gave up football his first year at L.A. Southwest College, where he ran track exclusively. He then enrolled at USC in 2009 for track and is now listed as a sophomore on USC's official football roster, although he was also listed as a sophomore on the track team last season.

For a secondary that has struggled mightily this season and loses its leader, Shareece Wright, at the end of the season, he very well could end up being a usable piece in the coming years.

With Starling likely to return this week from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for three games, Burnett will have to compete for the opportunity to start across from Marshall Jones at safety. But it doesn't sound like Lane Kiffin's ruling that or his long-term potential out.

“For a guy who has really not played very much football in a long time, and just really played on special teams for the most part this year, he did well," the coach said Tuesday when asked to assess Burnett's big-show debut. "He did some good things. Obviously the big negative was the long run on the last drive. He’s there three yards from the line of scrimmage and misses the tackle, but there was a lot of space there as well. All in all, that’s pretty good for a track kid coming in and playing in the USC – Notre Dame game.

"He did well.”

Speaking with obvious excitement about the phone-buzzing aftermath of his breakout performance, Burnett is quick to deflect praise for his performance onto his coaches.

"Coach Kiffin put me in position to make the tackles," Burnett said Tuesday. "I just follow the rules he gave me and the assignments with the defense."

Here's more from Burnett, in the form of a one-on-one video interview after Tuesday's practice, including this quote:

"All I want is support -- through good and through bad, too."