by Ben Trent
When Richard Burney first stepped onto UVA’s Grounds back in the summer of 2015 as a tight-end, he could not have weighed more than 240 pounds. Now, as UVA enters its second to last home game of the 2019 season, Burney is a different beast all together.
Tipping the scale at 275 pounds, the Chesapeake, Va., native is a consistent contributor on UVA’s defensive line. He, along with Eli Hanback, Mandy Alonso and a slew of other d-linemen with Coach Vic So’oto at the helm, have helped build and maintained a strong defense.
However, Burney’s career has been far from easy. His move from tight end to defensive line only shows a brief flash of what it has taken for him to become a contributor for the Hoos. His career can be best summed and defined by three words: transitions, challenges and opportunities.
The best place to begin Burney’s story is the 2017 season. He appeared in all 13 games as a tight-end. However, when preparation began for UVA’s first bowl matchup in six years versus Navy in the Military Bowl, he made the transition to defensive line
“At first, I thought it [the move from tight end to defensive line] was going to be extremely difficult,” Burney said. “But I welcomed the challenge. It was tough for me to adapt at first to the new atmosphere, but I was thankful to have guys like Mandy, Andrew [Brown] and Eli to help me along the way. I had to tell myself that change is good and it would benefit myself and the team.”
Burney’s embrace of the challenge and offensive background was a plus in the eyes of Coach So’oto.
“Although that transition was really hard for him, because it’s a whole different ball game, what I do think playing tight end first allowed him to do was understand blocking schemes and understand where offenses wanted d-lineman to be and how to go against it,” So’oto said. “And then his eagerness to play. I think the biggest thing is he got an opportunity and he has made the most of the opportunity. Everyone wants to play and this was his opportunity to play and he’s done a great job with it.”
His position transition was only the first of Burney’s many challenges. His mindsets of welcoming the challenge and that ‘change is good’ are ones that Burney would soon have to fortify and redefine as his career continued on. In the 2018 season, after starting the first three games, while UVA was playing the Louisville Cardinals at Scott Stadium, something was clearly wrong. Due to medical complications arising during the game, Burney would have to sit the remainder of the 2018 season – even missing a large portion of off season training that following semester.
“I thought on the hard work I put in had gone to waste,” Burney said. “I thought I would never play again.”
However, the strong mindset that Burney had built through his initial transition plus guidance from head coach Bronco Mendenhall helped him make the most of another challenge,
“Being a part of this program has helped me get back to my normal self,” Burney said. “Coach Mendenhall cares about our development as people outside of football. I am extremely grateful for that.”
Not only has Burney been able to return to his normal self, he has also been able to pick up where he left off. Burney now finds himself as one of the only fifth years on the defensive line and one of the seasoned vets.
“I have learned many valuable lessons from my experiences here,” Burney said. “I genuinely enjoy being a leader by example. I try to let my actions speak louder than words and I think my teammates appreciate that. The ability to continue and persist and persevere has allowed me to be in the position I am in today.”
The lessons he has learned have been noticed by coaches as well.
“I think it has taken time. I don’t think it was natural for him to be thrusted into a leading role,” So’oto said. “But because of the d-line and the maturity level we had in the room he kind of got thrusted into this role. And then the numbers he put up in the weight room automatically put him into a leadership role because he killed it in the offseason, in the weight room and on the field. He’s been developing and he’s taken the reigns – along with Eli, as far as leading the guys to do what they need to do to be successful.”
Burney’s career has been far from easy. He has had more than his fair share of bumps in the road. These challenges have helped shape who Burney is on and off the field. During the off-season, the defensive line frequently do community service: different activities chosen by the different guys on the defensive line.
“I think I am extremely fortunate to be in the position I am in,” Burney said. “There are others that would do anything to be in my shoes. So, I try to give back and just be the best person I can be. I put everything I have into this game because it’s a privilege that can be taken away at any second.”
The privilege to play the game is one Burney holds near and dear to his heart. Burney’s career has been anything but conventional. A challenge has waited for him at every turn, but his willingness to approach it as an opportunity has led him to success.