When USC receiver Deontay Burnett finally got back to the locker room after the Trojans' thrilling 52-49 win against Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, there were more than 200 text messages waiting for him on his phone.
Over the previous four hours or so, the sophomore went from promising talent to breakout star -- and it probably felt like everyone he knew wanted to congratulate him. Burnett finished with 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-tying score on a 27-yard pass from Sam Darnold with under two minutes left.
"It's a night that I will not forget," he said.
It's also a night that almost didn't happen.
When Burnett woke up on National Signing Day in 2015, he expected to fax his letter of intent to Washington State. He had been committed to the Cougars for several months, but one phone call changed that.
The caller ID showed Tee Martin. The USC receivers coach had been recruiting him all year, but the Trojans didn't have a scholarship available for him. Still, Burnett had an idea of what Martin might be calling about, and his suspicion proved to be true: Martin offered Burnett the opportunity to blueshirt at USC.
What that means is that he was offered a scholarship, but it wouldn't kick in until the fall semester began and would not count against the Trojans' allotment in 2015. Burnett did not hesitate to accept. The Compton native, who played at nearby Serra High, was all for it.
"USC is a dream school of mine and I felt it was a great opportunity for me to go there," Burnett said. "I wasn't surprised, but I was really excited about it."
Burnett quickly proved to be one of the more promising young talents on the team. Despite his unconventional route to joining the program, Burnett played as a true freshman. He caught just 10 passes for 161 yards without a touchdown, but the staff liked what it saw.
"One of those all-around program guys. Great kid. Doesn't say a lot," quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator Tyson Helton said. "Works his tail off. He doesn't get caught up in the hoopla. He just does his job. It's great to see a guy like that come into his own and become a really big-time player.
"Those are the kind of guys you want to coach. Tee and I joke all the time about if we could go get more of those guys, we would be unstoppable."
Burnett got off to a good start this season, but it wasn't until Steven Mitchell was lost for the year with a torn ACL in October that he moved into a starting role. He has made a catch in every game since, but the Rose Bowl was his true coming out party. His previous single-game high for catches was seven (twice) and he had not previously cracked 100 yards receiving.
On his game-tying touchdown reception, Burnett had to do some improvising. The play design called for him to run across the field, but because a Penn State linebacker dropped into zone coverage, it disrupted the timing of the play. Instead, he turned it into more of a post and found an opening between three defenders in the end zone. Darnold recognized the same thing and dropped in a perfect pass to tie the game.
"That just shows how great of a quarterback he is," Burnett said. "How he anticipates his receivers and makes plays."
With Darreus Rogers out of eligibility and JuJu Smith-Schuster likely to depart early for the NFL draft, Burnett is positioned to be the Trojans' top receiver next year on what will likely be a preseason top-5 team.
"Next year is going to be exciting," he said. "I can't wait to get back to work. Knowing we have players like Sam Darnold, [running back] Ronald Jones, [safety] Marvel Tell. It's a bright future."