Ten days after Eric Burrell signed to play for the Wisconsin Badgers, the secondary coach who recruited him, Daronte Jones, left for a job in the NFL.
As the incoming freshman was talking with others trying to figure out who would be their new coach, the name of Jim Leonhard emerged. He got the job a little over a week after Jones departed. Not being an aficionado on Wisconsin football history, Burrell quickly did some research on the one-time Badgers walk-on turned All-American who spent 10 years in the NFL after being undrafted.
“I’m like, ‘Oh man, this guy is the real deal’,” Burrell recalled thinking.
Little did Burrell know not only how much of an impact Leonhard would have on him but also how similar he was to his coach in terms of football ability.
“He was never the tallest guy, the strongest guy, the fastest guy, but he was the type of guy that would outwork you and outsmart you, if that makes sense, and I apply that to me because I’m not the fastest, I’m not the strongest, not the biggest, but I try my best to outsmart you,” Burrell said.
Said Leonhard: “You kind of talk the limitations … he knows where he thrives as a football player. The physical aspect of being able to throw his body around and track the football. That is a skill in itself that not everybody has. He found a way his entire time here to get close to that football and good things were happening.”
After redshirting in 2016 and playing on special teams in 2017, Burrell started six games in 2018 and quickly made an impact as a hard-hitting free safety who had a knack for making impact plays. From 2018-20, Burrell played in 34 games and recorded 120 tackles, 15 passes defensed, five interceptions, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
“He was dynamic as a playmaker for us,” Leonhard said. “It’s kind of funny you see guys put together little highlights of themselves as they leave, you kind of forget just how many plays and how many different types of plays he made throughout his time, whether it was in coverage, man coverage, zone coverage, playing in the post, blitzing, he made a lot of big plays in this defense and he’s dynamic that way.”
As he looks to make the jump to the NFL, Burrell said Leonhard’s defense helped prepare him for the next level. In Wisconsin’s defense, safeties play on both the left and right side. As the free safety, what Burrell called “the quarterback of the defense,” a lot of information is disseminated through them, including making sure he was lined up correctly. If not, other players would then be in the wrong spots as well.
“Learning from Jim Leonhard, he definitely put me in the position to be where I am now,” Burrell said. “It’s hard. If you can be successful in a Wisconsin defense, you can be successful anywhere because it’s very complex. ... I think I’ll fit in well (in the NFL). Me being a safety in the Wisconsin defense you play left and right, so they’re very interchangeable … I think it’s easy for me to transition (to the NFL). If they want me play free, I’m willing to do that. If they want me to play strong, I think it’d be an easy transition for me.”
Funny thing is, Burrell probably doesn’t need to play football. In his 4 1/2 years at Wisconsin, he earned a bachelor’s degree in personal finance and a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis. Burrell also has started a prototype for a clothing line which he hopes to launch soon.
All of this made his decision quite easy not to return to Wisconsin – what else could he accomplish? He has two degrees and thinks his game film shows a player ready for the NFL.
“I think everything was just destined for me to take it to the next level, I think there’s a lot of film out there to be … I think I’m ready for it, but if other people think I’m not ready for it, they definitely can do some research about it,” Burrell said. “But I felt good with everything, so it was an easy decision for me.”
There’s just something about football which appeals to Burrell. Even with all he potentially has in front of him – the master’s degree, the clothing line – the sport is his number one passion. Ever since he started playing it when he was 8 years old, he’s been drawn to it.
“I just fell in love with the game,” Burrell said. “Football is the ultimate team sport. … I’m very competitive whatever I do. Football is a man’s sport for a reason. It started when I was young and I just fell in love with the game, honestly. My goal was always to make it to the pros and now I’m in this situation it’s very exciting for me. All the hard work I put in is finally paying off.”
Burrell knows that his road to the NFL, like Leonhard before him, is likely paved through special teams. That’s just another plus in his book.
Burrell played in four phases of special teams for the first three of his years at Wisconsin – COVID issues, such as lack of depth in the secondary, kept him off the units as a senior. He did everything ranging from gunner on punt returns to backside tackle on kick returns and nearly everything else in between.
He said if a coach turned on his game film of his special teams, he’d see “guy out working, out flashing, pretty much doing all the dirty work.”
Dig into Burrell’s senior year film and besides the playmaking ability, the former Wisconsin safety said his leadership shows up. That’s one area he worked on last year and thinks he took a big step in that department.
“He poured everything into this program,” Leonhard said. “His teammates love him, he has their back, he’s a great leader and hopefully finds a spot in the NFL real soon.”
Burrell has a couple of sayings he likes to use to describe his mindset, especially as he works towards his goal of making the NFL.
One is “elevate beyond,” which also happens to the name of his pending fashion company. It originated when people called him “E.B.” due to his initials, but he took it a step further. For him, it represents his attitude.
“I’ll always outwork you so if you want to be anywhere in life you have to elevate your game and go beyond it,” he explained.
The other saying Burrell relates to is “10 toes down.” Basically, no matter what happens, what is thrown at you, be ready.
“Expect nothing, be grateful for anything. Regardless of the situation I’ll figure things out,” Burrell said. “I think it will be very exciting for me. Just hopefully my name gets called (on draft day) or whatever the situation will be, I’ll be ready to go being in the best shape of my life and ready to work.”