Kentucky head coach for offense Joker Phillips said he recruited cornerback Randall Burden because of the "LaGrange swagger," the confidence and intangibles that are evident in most of the prospects from UK's pipeline at LaGrange High School in Georgia.
But Burden didn't have that swagger early on. Growing up, he was a square peg in a round hole at the famed football powerhouse located between the University of Georgia and Auburn University.
"Randall thought of himself as more of a basketball player when he was coming up," LaGrange Coach Steve Pardue said. "He didn't even come out for football until 10th grade."
But standing just 6 feet tall, Burden came to the conclusion that football would be his best ticket to a college scholarship.
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The skills he developed on the hardwood have come in handy for him on the gridiron, though, as Burden has shown a knack for making plays on the ball. He's tied with linebacker Sam Maxwell for the team lead in pass breakups with seven, and last week he made the biggest play of his career: a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal UK's 36-13 win over Louisiana-Monroe.
"Randall really knows how to play the ball, and I think basketball helped out with that," Pardue said. "The timing of it is similar. You have to go up and challenge guys for rebounds. That's a lot like going up and challenging a receiver in a jump-ball situation. There are a lot of other similarities."
Burden, who said he still plays some pickup basketball when he can find the time, said some of the defensive principles in basketball correlate with covering a receiver.
"In man-to-man, one-on-one situations, it really helps," he said. "When you're playing man-to-man defense in basketball, you have to stay in front of your guy. When you're playing press coverage, it's the same thing."
Starters Paul Warford and Trevard Lindley have both missed time because of injuries, which has paved the way for Burden to make four consecutive starts. And if he didn't have the "LaGrange swagger" before, he's starting to get it now.
"Randall's confidence is up," secondary coach Chris Thurmond said. "In addition to the interception (against ULM), he had two pass breakups in the end zone. He's improved steadily since the bowl game last year. He understands the system, knows where to line up, knows what to do and how to do it. It was great to see him make a huge play. He's still learning the position, and he's learning by experience, but he's got a chance to be a really good player."
Burden, a sophomore, said he's had opportunities to make big plays before, but "I was never quite able to do it.
"These last couple of games I've been able to make some big plays and help the team, so that's really helped my confidence. Part of the LaGrange swagger is that if you make a play, you come back to the huddle knowing you can make a play again."
At 6-foot, 170 pounds, Burden is similar in height and body size to Lindley, who's recognized as one of the best corners in the nation. He's shown glimpses of some of the ball skills that put Lindley on the map. The next step in Burden's progression is added weight. Lindley was about 170 to 175 pounds before adding 15 pounds before this season.
"He's got to get in the weight room if he wants to accomplish what he did (against ULM) on an every-week basis," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "This is a physical league, and you need some strength. I was disappointed that he didn't add some strength and weight over the last off-season. He needs to take that to heart and get stronger as we move forward."
Phillips said the comparison to Lindley is a fair one.
"We know he can cover; he's long, and he's got really good ball skills," Phillips said. "He's just got to get bigger and more physical. Trevard was his size his first four years here, and he decided his senior year he needed to get bigger. Hopefully, Randall won't wait that long."
■ Senior linebacker Micah Johnson, who injured his knee against Louisiana-Monroe, made it through practice Thursday and will be available for some action Saturday against Mississippi State, although Brooks said sophomore Ronnie Sneed will start.
■ Lindley (ankle) remains doubtful, but Brooks said the senior cornerback would dress and take part in pre-game warm-ups to see whether he can contribute.