In the minutes leading up to practice, North Carolina’s football players can always count on hearing a couple of numbers being discussed while they stretch.
The digits are part of a game — a bet between coach Butch Davis and cornerback Kendric Burney.
“We always chide each other,” Davis said. “How many balls can you get your hands on today in practice? He’ll throw out a little side bet. He’ll say, ‘I’ll get 10 today, I’ll get 12 or whatever.’”
Burney by the numbers
- 8 career interceptions
- 317 career interception return yards
- 16 career tackles for loss
- 35 straight starts
- 11 games played for UNC baseball
“Absolutely nothing,” Burney said with a laugh.
Well, not quite.
Burney’s competitive nature won’t let him lose if pride is on the line.
“He’s like a statistician,” cornerback Charles Brown said. “If Coach Davis goes up and asks him how many balls we’ve got our hands on, Kendric’s going to know.”
Davis and Burney started their “bets” five games into the season, when UNC sported a 3-2 record and struggled to force turnovers. UNC had forced just seven turnovers at that point in the season.
In the five games since, UNC’s defense has produced 15 turnovers and improved its record to 7-3.
Burney starred in the Tar Heels’ 33-24 upset against No. 12 Miami, notching three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
While Burney, a junior, is comfortable enough to joke with Davis now, last year he wasn’t nearly as content.
The Jacksonville, N.C., native arrived in Chapel Hill with the intention of focusing most of his attention on baseball rather than the gridiron.
But Burney found himself on the baseball team’s bench while he was starting at cornerback.
And when his freshman year ended, Davis wanted Burney to focus solely on football in order to hone in on the fundamentals vital to take him to the next level as a corner.
Burney resisted — his first love was baseball.
“From the time I was 6 or 7 years old, what I pretty much knew was baseball,” Burney said. “Even though (others) played backyard football, when it came to travel ball and stuff like that, during my summer it was always baseball.”
Help came from an unexpected source.
UNC baseball coach Mike Fox talked Burney and his family through the decision, helping them find perspective in order to determine the best decision, even if that meant leaving his team behind.
And after much deliberation, Burney left the baseball team.
“It was hard for our players to see him go,” Fox said. “He’s one of those kinds of kids that everybody gravitates to.
“We missed that in our program when he left.”
‘Where I need to be’
When his sophomore season began, Burney was having doubts.
“I thought I made the wrong decision, to tell you the truth,” Burney said. “The reason why I came here was baseball.”
Though UNC was winning and he was showing improvement at his position, his first love didn’t just immediately disappear.
His indecision lasted all the way until the Oct. 25.
That day, Burney had a career game, picking off two passes against Boston College in the Tar Heels’ 45-24 rout of the Eagles.
But it wasn’t the interceptions that convinced Burney.
“I remember looking in the end zone, and it was the whole baseball team sitting right in the bottom of the end zone cheering,” Burney said. “It kind of made me look in perspective. This is where I need to be.”
Still, he isn’t completely done with baseball yet. Fox still allows Burney occasionally to take batting practice and shag fly balls.
“He still loves baseball,” safety Deunta Williams said. “That’s in his heart, and it will never go away.”
On the 5-9 junior’s bio on UNC’s athletic site, there’s a line that reads “plays bigger than his size,” which is a nice way of saying he’s short.
He hasn’t let that get it the way.
“I’ve been the short guy all my life,” Burney said. “From playing basketball and having to guard big guys, when it comes to height I look at it like, ‘OK, let’s go, another challenge.’”
That motivation can sometimes get lost in his playful nature.
Burney is always up for fun, whether it’s racing his teammates for a post-practice ride back on Davis’ golf cart or pretending to dunk a ball of used athletic tape on a teammate’s head.
His coaches have seen the transformation on the field, though, from a player who defined raw athleticism when he entered the program.
“He’s reaping the benefits,” Davis said. “He just has a really good gift at diagnosing routes, realizing where the threats are.”
Just look at the results of his and Burney’s competition this season.
When asked who won most of the bets, Davis didn’t even have pause to think about it.
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