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It’s funny how things change in just a season.

Last year, Denzel Burrell was the understudy at linebacker, learning from a seasoned group of senior veterans with 123 combined starts between them.

This season, it is Burrell’s turn to take the reins as leader. The senior is a co-captain for the 2009 Cavaliers’ squad and the lone returning starter in the linebacking corps. He knows it is his turn to step into a leading role.

“It’s interesting how I can go from one of the middlemen to one of the elders in a matter of months,” Burrell said. “I’ve basically just taken on the same things that Clint (Sintim) and the other seniors did for us – preaching teamwork and things like that – and really just talking about the competition.

“Between Aaron Clark and me and everybody else out there, we just keep constantly talking and reiterating the fact that it’s just competition, work hard every play and play it just like every play is your last. You never know when things happen, obviously. I went down with a knee injury one year and Aaron Clark went down once, so you can’t take any snaps for granted. That is what we try to preach every day because you never know when it will be your last snap. You just want to play them all to the best of your ability.”

Burrell made the most of his ability last season, starting the final 11 games and recording 48 tackles – sixth most on the team. He battled classmate Aaron Clark for playing time all through the spring and preseason and took over sole possession of the position after Clark went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opening game against Southern California.

“Going into last spring Aaron and I knew we both were battling for the outside linebacker spot and our thing every day was just competing and working hard to get better,” Burrell said. “I think we made each other much better players throughout the spring and summer camp.

“Then with his unfortunate injury in the first game, I just really knew that I had to step up and take hold of the position. I got a lot of positive response from Aaron. He was always there for me and helped in any way he could. I just knew I had to step up, being a younger linebacker on the team, and that I just had to relax and do everything I could. I got real comfortable because of the linebackers that were out there. Their leadership on the team was tremendous, and I felt like that was a big part of me being able to perform out there on the field with them.”

Burrell had the opportunity to learn under Sintim, Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby, who had nearly 700 career tackles between them. It helped mold Burrell into the player he is today.

“It was really comforting,” Burrell said. “They had all been in the system for so long. To be able to be out there with three major leaders on the team was second to none. It was amazing and it just gave me more time to really work on my game and work on things like footwork and little things that made me better.”

Burrell used the offseason to continue to improve on many aspects of his game.

“I think some of the biggest things I worked on are footwork and the use of hands,” Burrell said. “At outside linebacker it’s so important to have good footwork whether you are rerouting or trying to lock out tight ends on the line of scrimmage. I feel like those are the two things that needed the most work and I feel like those are the two things that got the most work.

“With a lot of drills that we do now, there is so much emphasis placed on hand placement and the use of hands. Coach (Bob) Trott (linebackers) always says we work out, we bench press for a reason, you might as well use it. That is obviously what we are doing now. I think it has helped my game a lot and I feel like it is going to be very useful during the season.”

Burrell and his fellow linebackers are working with Trott for the first time this season. Trott has been defensive coordinator at Arkansas, Clemson, Duke, Baylor and Louisiana-Monroe and spent the past four seasons working with the Cleveland Browns’ linebackers in their 3-4 scheme.

“We’ve taken a real liking to him,” Burrell said of Trott. “Coming from an NFL system, he is a great coach. He tells you what you need to know and he is not a super in-your-face-guy. I think that helps, especially a lot of the younger linebackers. They are not really nervous to make mistakes out there and, being more comfortable, I think they are able to play to the best of their abilities. He really just tells you what you need to know and he gets you to think smart like a football player and that’s what we need. We work on so much footwork, technique and hands, which is one of the biggest things for an outside linebacker.”

Now all that work comes full circle for Burrell. He is in his final season and determined to make sure the 2009 season is a success.

“To me that’s all motivation,” Burrell said. “We want to get out there and prove ourselves and prove everybody wrong. We want to make our fans, our coaches and ourselves happy.”

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