Pelissero: 'Relaxed' Stephen Burton opening eyes in Vikings' workouts
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Stephen Burton knows all about slow starts.
His mother forbade him from playing Pop Warner football because she wanted his bones to develop. He finally convinced her to let him play as a 5-foot-9, 155-pound freshman at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., then quit as a sophomore.
"I sucked at tackle football," Burton recalled last week. "I really, really sucked at tackle football. Contact was something that I wasn't too fond of."
Going back to phys-ed class wasn't much better, though. Not for a guy who grew up telling friends his favorite NFL team was the one that would someday draft him.
When he rejoined the team as a junior, Burton's coach stuffed him on the JV side of the depth chart at defensive end. Only as a 6-foot, 185-pound senior did he move to receiver, where the agility and elusiveness he'd honed in flag football gave him a home.
"I had to work my way up," Burton said, "and it's always been working since."
Perhaps that explains why Burton can shrug off the mayhem of his first NFL season as "an interesting experience" at a time he's opening eyes in the Minnesota Vikings' offseason workouts.
A year ago, the lockout wiped out Burton's chance to learn Bill Musgrave's offense, which requires detailed routes he never had to run in Division II West Texas A&M's wide-open spread.
Training camp was a mess, lowlighted by the pass Burton inexplicably batted down in a Hail Mary drill and a hamstring injury that didn't fully heal until weeks after he'd been cut and re-signed to the practice squad.
Burton made his NFL debut on Oct. 30 against Carolina, sat the next two weeks and was cut again on Nov. 26, despite some protest from coaches.
He was back on the roster three days later, hauled in his first two NFL catches that week against Denver and then suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 11 -- his 22nd birthday.
"The good thing for Stephen is that he was able to get some reps in ball games a year ago when I know he wasn't expecting that early on and neither were we," coach Leslie Frazier said. "That helped him, because he has a lot more confidence at this stage than when we had him in training camp."
The change has been obvious to those who have watched Burton each day since last month's launch of organized team activity practices -- the voluntary spring sessions that didn't exist his rookie year.
Burton primarily has been working at the "Z" (flanker) position and lined up with the first string in Percy Harvin's absence on Wednesday, when he made several juggling catches in individual drills and a sliding grab in 11-on-11 that suggested improved focus, too.
"It just helps you being here," Burton said. "You get so much more comfortable. You're relaxed. You get into a routine almost. Waking up, lifting, going to practice, studying, doing your thing -- everything just becomes first nature after awhile."
His combination of size (6-1, 224) and speed (the Vikings timed him at 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine) made him worth a flyer in the seventh round (236th overall) of last year's draft as a developmental prospect.
Receivers coach George Stewart has compared him to former NFL star Terrell Owens, another small-school prospect whose production at Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga pales next to Burton's at Long Beach Community College and WTAMU.
It wasn't that long ago Burton was looking wildly overmatched in the Mankato heat, though. And even with Jerome Simpson's looming suspension opening opportunities early in the season, Burton knows he still has a battle ahead just to make the roster.
The Vikings used two fourth-round picks on receivers, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, who figure to make the roster if they're healthy. Veterans Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu also are in the mix -- although Burton's upside might give him the edge on both if he can carry over his fast start in OTAs to training camp.
"Of course, you're going to always have a goal, or a light at the end of the tunnel you want to reach," Burton said. "But you've just got to focus on the now, because you could be here today and gone tomorrow, in football and life. You've just got to worry about the next play, that play then, that second, and just grind it out."