TAMPA, Fla. — The drill starts in the middle of five cones and ends whenever Alabama running backs coach Burton Burns says so.
Known for his high-intensity workouts, Burns isn’t shy to push his running backs to their limits during practice. The 64-year-old assistant coach has developed a few doozies over the years, but by far the drill Crimson Tide players dread the most is his infamous cone drill.
“He likes to scream at us and yell, but in practice, he’s got this drill,” Alabama true freshman running back B.J. Emmons said. “There’s like one cone in the middle and five cones all around. You touch a cone go back to the middle and then touch another cone and go back to the middle. If you don’t do it right, he’ll make you do it until you get it right.”
The jury is still out on how long that actually takes. Emmons said he’s had to do the drill up to three times in succession. When asked the same question, sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough just shook his head.
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“With him, you never have it right,” Scarbrough said. “That’s what makes him a good coach.”
For Burns, that’s kind of the point.
“You never get it right, it’s an ongoing process,” he said with a laugh. “I think that’s what good football players, good people do. You really keep on working, because you’ve never arrived.”
Burns’ high attention to detail is what has helped him develop two Heisman Trophy winners and seven NFL running backs since joining Alabama head coach’s Nick Saban’s staff 10 years ago. As the Tide’s longest tenured assistant, Burns’ work with the Tide’s running backs has proven his value, as he helped Alabama win five SEC championships and four national titles.
In achieving that success, Burns has stuck with a simple approach when it comes to coaching.
“You have a job to do, and that’s what I try to sell those guys, let’s do our job, whatever it takes to do our job,” Burns said. “Every day you work out, you’re not going to feel it. So, sometimes we need each other to push us.”
That sense of family was passed down from his father, Winston Burns, a former high school coach in New Orleans. Burton said he learned a lot from growing up watching his dad interact with his players. No lesson was better received than the one his father displayed off the field.
“I think the biggest lesson I learned from him is it’s not just about the ball, it’s about the person,” Burns said. “You treat those guys just like you’d treat your blood family because you’re with them so much they do become your family.”
Winston Burns passed away Dec. 22 in his New Orleans home at age 92. The news hit Burns hard. Before the Tide’s matchup against No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl, the assistant coach missed a practice to attend his father’s funeral.
Understanding their coach’s pain, Burns’ football family had his back.
Each Alabama running back reached out individually sending their head coach texts and messages of support in his absence. On the field, sophomore running back Damien Harris said the players made sure to practice with an extra intensity that day to fill the void of their missing leader.
“It made me feel like we are a family,” Burns said. “They felt my pain just like I feel every pain for them when something happens to them with their families. It was very uplifting. It was something that motivated me to do things the way I do.”
After receiving the support, Burns returned in time to watch the Tide rush for 269 yards in a 24-7 victory over Washington.
“The first day he came back, he was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be because this is where my dad would want me to be,’” Harris said. “Just knowing that he’s that dedicated and that focused on our development and making us better as players, he really showed how much he cared about us. He could have missed the game, honestly. Just a situation like that, for him to come back meant a lot to us.”
True freshman running back Josh Jacobs calls Burns a father figure and said the assistant coach has helped not only with his transition from high school to college this season but also with his move from Tulsa, Okla. Jacobs said he has cell phone numbers for both Burns and his wife Connie and goes to them for anything from motivation to homesickness.
“That in itself is huge for me being so far away,” Jacobs said. “We’ve sat down plenty of times, and also his wife, she’ll sit down and talk to you too. They are just cool people. It’s basically like having a second family from home.”
Perhaps Burns’ best quality is his ability to read his players. If someone is having a bad day or needs a pick-me-up, Burns is the first to notice. He’s also pretty good at bringing his players back down to earth after they experience success on the field.
Jacobs still remembers the “report card” he received following his first career start against Kentucky earlier this season. The freshman running back ripped off 100 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries while pulling in three receptions for 54 yards.
“I had a couple of missed assignments,” Jacobs said.
It was Burns who first taught Jacobs that excellence was expected at Alabama. Jacobs, who arrived at Alabama under the radar of most recruiting sites, said he was originally just happy to be on the team. However, Burns doesn’t recruit his backs to become backups.
“Everyday he tells us that he’s just looking for that guy,” Emmons said. “He wants a guy that takes charge of the whole running back squad, that’s what he’s looking for. So that’s why he comes out every day with his attitude. He just wants someone to take charge.”
Burns was also there to motivate Emmons when he went down with a season-ending foot injury before in November. Though the injury was a discouraging end the freshman’s season, Emmons said Burns was quick to remind him to keep his head up and only worry about what he can control.
Monday night, Burn will look for his fifth national championship with the Tide, as No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The Tide assistant plans for him and his players to enter the game the same way they do every day — prepared and as a family.