December 17, 2013

Purple Raiders offense follows its leader

More news about: Mount Union
There was no doubt who would lead Mount Union's offense in 2013, only a question of how far Kevin Burke, right, would take them.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Kevin Burke lost a championship game once. He was in eighth grade at St. Bernadette’s in Westlake, Ohio. The quarterback and his teammates had been undefeated since third grade and were favored over St. Raphael. The Bulldogs lost to St. Raphael, despite Burke toughing it out after injuring a ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand on the game’s first possession.

Kevin Burke was a backup once. His freshman season at Lakewood St. Edward was spent quarterbacking the “B” team, while Robbie Plagens, who eventually walked on at Miami University, quarterbacked the freshman “A” team. Actually, he was a backup twice. As a freshman at Mount Union, he saw limited action in nine games, rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown and passing for 73 yards. He did not get on the field in the Purple Raiders’ 13-10 loss to UW-Whitewater in the 2011 Stagg Bowl.

Kevin Burke had a losing record once. After leading St. Edward’s junior varsity to an undefeated season as a sophomore, Burke was slated to be the backup to Alex Lavisky as a junior. The Eagles were welcoming in a new coaching staff that would be installing a new offense. Late in the summer, Lavisky decided he would forgo football to focus on baseball (he was eventually drafted in the eighth round of the MLB draft by the Cleveland Indians). Burke was thrust into the starting job for a team in transition. The Eagles went 4-6, but Burke proved that he could lead a team.

Other than that, all he has done is win. Since 2010, he is 44-0 as a starting quarterback, with an Ohio high school state championship and a Stagg Bowl victory. On Friday, he can lead a team to his third championship in four seasons.

“He is extremely poised. He has played in big games and been in tough situations and he never gets rattled,” said Mount Union head coach Vince Kehres. “People always talk about whether a player, especially a quarterback, has ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is. Kevin has ‘it’.”

A fourth-quarter deficit certainly doesn’t rattle Burke. Those who know him best were not surprised in the least that Burke led the Purple Raiders to the go-ahead touchdown with 67 seconds to play in the semifinal win over North Central. When Kevin was 2 years old, he wandered into the backyard where his three older siblings played. His father, Jeff, found him grasping the first monkey bar, ready to swing to the other side. When Kevin was 6, his parents took him skiing for the first time. Moments after proclaiming “It’s showtime!” at the top of the hill, young Kevin was zooming down the slopes, in total control. When North Central took the lead with 1:38 to play on Saturday, Kevin looked up while warming up on the sideline and made eye contact with Jeff. Father had no doubt that his son was about to lead another memorable touchdown drive.

“He has always been fearless,” said Jeff Burke. “Being the youngest, I think he was mature for his age from a very young age. He is not ever flustered.”

Kevin’s two older sisters were accomplished dancers and gymnasts and his older brother played wide receiver for Georgetown University after starring in three sports at St. Edward. Several of his high school teammates earned Division I football scholarships. The state of Ohio produced several Division I college quarterbacks in Burke’s class. St. Edward had appeared in three state championship games but had never won a title. All of these factors could have placed pressure on Burke, or motivated him to exceed expectations. While he still has a chip on his shoulder from that eighth grade championship loss, he has been defined by his ability to not press too hard or try to do too much.

“I’m not big on looking ahead or looking in the past. The most important thing is preparing myself for the present,” said Burke. “I’ve played in big games before and it’s something I’ve gotten used to. That eighth grade championship game still eats me up to this day, though.”

The Eagles were 14-0 and one win away from the first state championship in school history. The last team in their path was Huber Heights Wayne and a 6-3 dual threat quarterback named Braxton Miller. Wayne held a 21-7 lead late in the third quarter. A nervous energy spread among fans who had seen St. Edward come close but fall short in the state final before. Burke was, as always, unfazed. He just smiled and told his coaches that their team would win. St. Edward scored three straight times to take a lead, but Miller put Wayne back on top by a point with 2:34 to play. North Central fans can now commiserate with Wayne faithful. Burke led the Eagles to the go-ahead score 62 seconds later.

“That last drive, he willed his team down the field,” said St. Edward coach Rick Finotti. “He is obviously a great talent, and he’s a tremendous leader. Those young men believed in Kevin.”

At 5-10, Kevin Burke stands tall for the Purple Raiders.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com

Burke is a leader who can fire his teammates up when needed, but he is most effective as a calm, quiet leader. His smooth confidence inspires the same in his teammates.

“He is very calm. Nerves aren’t there at all, even if we’re down with a minute left,” said Purple Raiders right guard Pat Mahoney. “The main thing is we’re all looking at Kevin. If he’s in a panic, we panic. That’s never happened.”

His relentless positivity rallies his teammates, but also helps his coaches. Football coaches are generally a high-strung bunch, fretting over every minute detail and planning for any imaginable setback. When Kevin Burke is your starting quarterback, you can rest a little easier.

“His poise helps me. It gives me confidence and helps me make decisions that are tough decisions to make,” said Kehres. “I know he has the ability and the leadership to make the plays we need to make. I think the reason for our poise, a lot of that has to do with Kevin Burke.”

“He gives me and the coaching staff confidence, and that rubs off on his teammates.”

When he started his first varsity game as a junior for St. Edward, Burke played almost too loose. He celebrated prematurely on a would-be touchdown run, and bounced the ball off his leg and through the end zone for a touchback. He just moved on to the next possession.

“He’s always handled adversity well,” said his mother, Tama Burke. “He can let it go and go on to the next thing well. He is always calm about things he is in control of.”

Finotti believes that Burke was fully prepared to compete with and overtake Lavisky for the starting job before the returning starter and senior decided to focus on baseball. After earning the job by default and struggling to adapt to a new offense and coaching staff en route to a 4-6 season, Burke never got down on himself or his teammates.

“Kevin was unfazed by it all. The thing that stood out to me is how effective he is as a leader,” said Finotti. “He never sweats the small stuff. A lot of players like to talk, but very, very few can actually walk the walk. He follows through like nobody I’ve ever known.”

While his high school teammates, including his entire offensive line, signed college scholarships, the undersized Burke was completely supportive. He was genuinely happy for his teammates on National Signing Day and never resented being overlooked by bigger schools. He believed that Mount Union would be a great fit, and it has been that and more so far. But, it wasn’t like he just stepped on campus and was handed the keys to the offense along with a walnut and bronze trophy.

During an intrasquad scrimmage during his freshman year, All-America linebacker Charles Dieuseul sent a message to the newcomer. He lit up Burke, and let him know that at Mount Union, to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Burke inspired his teammates by bouncing right back after the big hit from the veteran linebacker.

Mahoney was a defensive lineman before moving to the offensive line this year. He admired Burke’s toughness from that first intrasquad scrimmage and is now thrilled to be on the other side of Burke’s elusiveness.

“Honestly, I’m glad I’m not rushing him in practice anymore. You think you have him wrapped up and he’s squirming away,” said Mahoney. “Sometimes, honestly, I don’t know where he’s at, then I see him pop out of nowhere and I just follow him to the end zone.”

Kevin Burke, game by game

Opponent Cmp Att. Pct. Yds Y/A TD Int. Sack Rush Yds TD
Franklin 17 25 .680 266 10.6 1 0 2 9 72 0
at Muskingum 18 31 .581 247 8.0 3 3 0 14 82 0
Marietta 22 30 .733 336 11.2 5 0 1 4 23 0
at Ohio Northern 18 21 .857 304 14.5 4 0 1 8 62 0
Wilmington 12 18 .667 209 11.6 4 1 1 9 111 2
at Capital 7 18 .389 176 9.8 2 0 1 14 157 3
Otterbein 5 13 .385 128 9.8 3 0 0 13 71 0
at Heidelberg 16 22 .727 310 14.1 4 0 5 22 91 0
Baldwin Wallace 15 23 .652 197 8.6 2 1 1 7 34 1
John Carroll 21 35 .600 374 10.7 3 0 3 10 23 2
Wash. and Jeff. 13 23 .565 198 8.6 4 1 3 16 60 0
Wittenberg 20 32 .625 326 10.2 5 0 4 14 83 1
Wesley 16 27 .593 280 10.4 3 0 3 15 35 2
North Central (Ill.) 12 19 .632 163 8.6 1 1 1 28 131 2

Burke became the first Mount Union quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He leads the nation in pass efficiency. He has carried the ball 183 times and attempted 337 passes, while turning the ball over just 12 times this season. In the 2010 Ohio high school state championship, he accounted for 219 yards of total offense and scored two touchdowns. On the biggest stage of his life at that point, he did not turn the ball over. Miller threw two interceptions in the loss.

Last season, Burke was a sophomore surrounded by ten seniors starting on Mount Union’s offense. This year, he is the lone returning starter to a unit that is second in the nation in total offense, averaging 528.6 yards per game. He has brought the new starters into the fold seamlessly. It would have been understandable for the defending champion to feel that he needed to carry the offense back to the Stagg Bowl, but Burke instead became more selfless this season.

“I don’t feel that it’s just me that has to make plays. All of these guys on offense know what Mount Union football is all about and these guys work their butts off,” said Burke. “They take the pressure off of me big time. I trust them and they trust me.”

That trust was built up over a year of weight room workouts and practices. That trust has solidified as Burke has rallied the Purple Raiders to come-from-behind victories over multiple nationally-ranked opponents. That trust comes naturally when your quarterback is as calm in the last two minutes of a national semifinal as he is in a non-conference game in September.

“We’ve been doing it all year. We’ve had some thrillers, then we’re ready to move on,” said Burke. “You get battle-tested. That’s helped us out a lot this year. We’re more ready than ever.”

The Purple Raiders have embraced the mantra of “business as usual” on the field each week. Last year, Burke helped deliver a Stagg Bowl victory for the senior class that was in danger of graduating without one. He didn’t feel pressure then, and he certainly doesn’t feel it now. He’s just doing what he’s been doing his whole life:  playing quarterback, having fun, and winning games.

“Obviously, when you come to Mount Union, there is an expectation to win, but I don’t feel and I don’t think the team feels pressure because we prepare and know what we’re supposed to do,” said Burke.

Burke’s trip to Salem will begin earlier this year, as he is one of four finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy. Those who have seen his leadership on and off the field will not be surprised if he adds another accolade on Wednesday night. However, Burke has never been known for his individual awards. He is the ultimate team player. If you have been fortunate enough to be Kevin Burke’s teammate at some point, there is a very good chance that you are a champion.

He is athletic and smart and puts up gaudy numbers, but so do a lot of quarterbacks. He prepares relentlessly and leads a team with a storied history, but so do a lot of quarterbacks. He wins championships at every level. Not many quarterbacks do that.

“The thing that really stands out is his intangibles,” Finotti, his high school coach, said. “It’s the stuff between his ears and in his heart. You can’t measure it. That’s what really sets him apart.”

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@ Salem Stadium; Salem, Va.
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