Utah safety Terrell Burgess circled behind Morgan Scalley during an interview session, holding a recorder and nodding in agreement as the defensive coordinator fielded a question about Burgess’ emergence this season.
“Man, I just can't say enough good things about that kid,” Scalley said.
Upon realizing that Burgess stood in back of him, Scalley joked, “I take everything back.”
Too late. The compliments already were on the record. And it was only fair for Burgess to be hovering, because that’s emblematic of his college career. He accomplished a lot by hanging around.
Burgess and linebacker Francis Bernard are the biggest success stories of Utah’s 2019 defense, considering their starting points. Going into the season, observers wondered about the Utes’ safeties and linebackers, as coaches replaced NFL signees with first-year starters in the Pac-12.
Burgess and Bernard became first-team all-conference players, as judged by the Pro Football Focus graders (and the league’s coaches, in Bernard’s case). They’re among six Utah players who accepted invitations to the Senior Bowl all-star game, with junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson also likely to be selected, having graduated from the school and declared for the NFL draft.
NO. 12 UTAH VS. TEXAS
Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m. MST
Burgess is Utah’s No. 3 tackler with 75 stops in 13 games, including 12 in Utah’s loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Scalley, his position coach, credits Burgess for dismissing the idea of transferring and playing sooner.
He waited his turn behind safeties such as Chase Hansen, Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard. “I just wanted to stick it out, and I love the place,” said Burgess, a southern California native. “I’m not just here for football. … I just think back to when I was making my decision to come here. I tried to make the decision that put me in the best position not only for football, but for life.”
The football part also worked out nicely. Burgess received All-Pac-12 honorable mention from the coaches. The Pro Football Focus evaluators who studied him on every play gave him a first-team ranking, with the conference’s best coverage grade (89.5). PFF also cited his blitzing ability, resulting in 15 quarterback pressures.
Burgess credited himself for persevering through the “trials and tribulations, listening to everything [Scalley] says, and doing everything I can to get on the field.”
Utah safety Julian Blackmon and cornerback Jaylon Johnson were named to the AP All-America second team and running back Zack Moss and defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu made the third team, announced Monday.
Anae was named an ESPN All-American, with only one team selected.
Johnson, a junior, has declared for the NFL draft and will miss the Alamo Bowl. So will Blackmon, who was injured in the Pac-12 championship game.
Oklahoma and Alabama were the only other schools with five selections.
Bernard, too, made himself into a high-level player in the Pac-12 after transferring from BYU, where he had started for one season at linebacker after moving from running back. He played behind Cody Barton and Hansen in 2018, then took over as a centerpiece of the defense, as dictated by his position and his personality.
On and off the field, “He’s been nothing but awesome,” Scalley said, describing him as “perhaps one of the biggest leaders on the football team.”
Bernard was named among the three linebackers on the coaches' All-Pac-12 team. More impressively, he was one of two linebackers picked for the PFF first team – ahead of California's Evan Weaver, the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.
PFF pointed to Bernard's “proving to have the ability to both stop the run and play in coverage” as his edge over Weaver.
That’s how Bernard views himself, having played his way into the NFL’s view as a senior. “I kind of look at myself as a very balanced linebacker who can stuff a hole in the run, but also I’m not afraid to be in space and cover a slot receiver,” he said. “I’ve done it throughout my career and I continue to get better and better, and I’ll continue to do it for however long I can.”
Bernard ranks just behind teammate Devin Lloyd in tackles (85-83), going into the Alamo Bowl vs. Texas. Those numbers are lower than the 100-plus tackled produced last season by Barton and Hansen, mainly because the No. 1 defense has been on the field for far fewer plays this year.