Zulgad: Stephen Burton now turning heads with his performance
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Stephen Burton still can't bring himself to laugh about the "play" that would define his rookie training camp.
"It was really ... ," Burton said before pausing to search for the right word, "stupid."
The second of two seventh-round picks by the Vikings in 2011, Burton was given the chance to participate in a Hail Mary drill in which the quarterback lofted the ball into the corner of the end zone.
Burton found himself in a prime position to catch the pass, went up for it and proceeded to ... bat it down. It would have been a terrific play if Burton had been a defensive back. But Burton is a wide receiver and, as former Vikings coach Brad Childress used to say, "By definition, receivers receive."
Coach Leslie Frazier and everyone else standing on the Mankato practice fields that day looked around as if to say, "Did that really happen?"
"I remember the play, but I don't remember what was going through my mind," Burton said. "I got made fun of quite a bit for that play."
The above paragraphs were not written to make Burton relive the embarrassment but rather to illustrate just how far he has come.
There has been plenty of talk from Mankato about Burton's play again this summer, but now it's focused on how well he is doing and whether the Vikings are going to have to make room for him on the 53-man roster.
Burton did nothing to quiet that enthusiasm on Friday night, catching three passes for a team-high 67 yards in the Vikings' preseason loss to Houston.
"I'm just out there having fun to be honest with you," Burton said when asked if he was aware that his performance in training camp had some talking. "I'm just playing the game that I love and it's just really a blessing to be out there and having fun and being talked about."
If there was one play Friday that showed how far Burton seems to have come, it occurred on his nifty 56-yard catch and run in the first quarter.
Facing a third-and-15 from his own 26-yard line, quarterback Matt Cassel hit Burton with a pass over the middle. Burton caught the ball but instead of continuing to move to his left, he reversed fields and cut back. He wasn't stopped until he reached the Texans 18-yard line.
"Defensive backs are told to pursue, so with the way I was going he expected me to continue to cut across the field in the direction I was going," said Burton, who also averaged 27 yards on two kickoff returns against Houston. "It was just a little bit of catching him off guard, seeing he wasn't on his toes."
It was the type of split-second decision and move that Burton would have had no chance of making a couple of years ago when things did not come naturally.
Burton, who played college football at West Texas A&M, was cut by the Vikings after his rookie camp and signed to the practice squad. He spent the opening seven weeks of the season with that unit before being activated in October.
Burton made his NFL debut on Oct. 30 against Carolina, sat the next two games and was cut again on Nov. 26. He was brought back on the roster three days later and made his first two catches that week against Denver. He suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 11.
Burton began to make gradual improvements and last season played in 12 games, getting one start. He finished with five receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown.
"I've come quite a way, but I can always (improve) more," Burton said. "I am more comfortable. It helps having a great group of guys around me who are patting me on the back and saying that everything is going to be all right. (They tell me to) just keep pushing, keep fighting. I haven't given up the faith, and I've just continued to keep pushing."
No matter how hard Burton pushes, he might be caught in a numbers game. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Sunday that no decision has been made on whether the team will keep five or six wide receivers on its final roster.
Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright would appear to have spots locked up. This could leave Burton battling quarterback-turned-receiver Joe Webb for the fifth and final spot on the depth chart, if the Vikings choose to keep a handful of wideouts.
Burton claims he is paying no attention to the depth chart.
"You can't look at it," he said. "You just have to play your game. You start worrying about other things, you'll lose focus."
And Burton knows that, for him, keeping his focus is everything. That's why spent the offseason trying to reshape his body. Burton entered the NFL looking a bit on the stocky side, but that is no longer the case.
Listed at 6-1, 224 pounds, Burton acknowledged he changed his diet after last season. He began to eat more fruits and spent more time in the gym. That helped him lose "a lot of body fat."
That was just part of Burton's offseason plan, a time in which he evaluated what he needed to do to stick in the NFL.
"I'd probably say the start of this year allowed me to see, 'Hey, you've got to put all your chips on the table right now and give it all you've got,'" he said. "Not worry about little things. Just play and just have fun doing it. Don't worry about things that you can't control. Leave it in God's hands and this year was really like probably my (time to) step up."