A person’s true character is revealed when no one else is watching.
That’s hardly an original thought. John Wooden uttered words to that effect, and so too have dozens of coaches and amateur philosophers.
Watching Fresno State quarterback Brian Burrell over these past few weeks, that’s the phrase that comes to mind.
Burrell leads the Bulldogs into Saturday night’s Mountain West Conference showdown at Nevada coming off the best game of his brief career. The junior completed 20 of 26 passes (by far his highest rate) for 207 yards and three touchdowns against San Jose State. His most gritty play may have been a 9-yard run on Fresno State’s opening drive that left him hobbled for the rest of the game — and more than a week afterward.
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“He’s a real tough dude,” receiver Josh Harper said. “He’ll lower his shoulder, take a hit and get right back up. It just rubs off on everybody.”
There were 36,909 at Bulldog Stadium that night, and each can attest to Burrell’s toughness.
But my largest insight into Burrell’s character came more than a week prior. It was a Tuesday afternoon, if I recall, just two days after Burrell was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Zack Greenlee. The announcement was splashed across the front page of the Sunday sports section.
Waiting in the parking lot outside the practice field, I noticed two players exiting the locker room well before any of their teammates. They were Burrell, the quarterback who just got demoted, and Brandon Connette, the quarterback who didn’t work out quite right on the field.
If Burrell’s intent was to pout, there are more effective ways to go about it than being the first guy out to practice.
“We’re not going to get down or let our teammates see us get down,” said Burrell, including good friend Connette in his statement. “We’re going to keep working hard and rooting on our teammates. That’s just how it is.”
Clearly, Burrell wasn’t happy to lose the starting job. But he didn’t go home and mope on the couch or pound his fists on the kitchen counter.
He kept working. That shows character.
“Definitely I was a little disappointed,” Burrell said. “Other than that, I trust the coaches’ decision. I know Zack is a good player and is going to be a really good one. So I respected that.”
Tim DeRuyter certainly noticed.
“Brian probably didn’t agree with it, although he didn’t say anything,” Fresno State’s third-year head coach said. “That’s not him. But he took it. I told him, ‘We need you to keep improving, keep fighting.’
“I told him there’s two ways you can go with this. You can pout and say, ‘Hey, I’m getting screwed.’ Or you can say, ‘Look, I’ve got to reevaluate where I’m at and keep getting better.’ That’s what he did. A lot of guys wouldn’t have.”
Burrell, of course, reclaimed the starting job. That he played his best game the following week cannot be mere coincidence.
This season has been tough sledding for Burrell and the offense. Even after the San Jose State game, his 120.90 passing efficiency rating ranks seventh in the MW.
You can argue Burrell has played well in only two games — against the Spartans and New Mexico. The Bulldogs have started sluggishly most of the year, going three-and-out six times on opening drives, and inconsistent quarterback play has been a major reason.
So I’m not saying Burrell will make Fresno State fans forget about Derek Carr.
What I’m saying is this is a gritty guy who works hard to get the most out of his ability. And he’s improving.
“More than anything, I think I’m trusting myself more,” Burrell said. “At the beginning of the year, I would be reserved to throw a pass. (Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm) would ask me on the sideline, ‘What did you see?’ And when I told him, I saw that I’d be right.
“Now I’ll see the play, react to it and find the open guy. I’ll throw the ball on time a little bit better than I have been. Getting the ball out of my hands is a big thing I’ve been working on.”
Passing accuracy will always be an issue with Burrell. (It’s one reason we don’t see those bubble screens the Bulldogs used to run so well.) He’s the type of quarterback who must have his feet set and mechanics nearly perfect for the ball to go where he wants it.
Toughness is something Burrell does innately. He doesn’t shy from contact and isn’t timid about sticking his facemask among two or more defenders no matter the consequences.
“When your quarterback is taking a punishment and getting right back up, it fires up the entire team,” Harper said. “It rallies everybody around him.”
Burrell was limping noticeably following the San Jose State game and didn’t really run on his sore leg until Tuesday’s practice.
Still, it’s impossible to miss the extra pep in his step.
“He’s got a resolve,” DeRuyter said. “He’s a guy that’s extremely gutty. He fights through when he has pains. He’s very, very determined. He works at it, and when adversity hits he doesn’t let it affect him.
“I’m very impressed with his character.”
Bulldogs fans should be, too.