February 29, 2024

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Hickory High grad Richard Burney awaits chance to complete “unfinished business” in his sixth season of eligibility at U.Va.

Less than 12 hours after Virginia’s 36-28 loss to Florida last year in the Orange Bowl, Richard Burney posted a New Year’s Eve tweet most assumed was a declaration of his intent to return to Charlottesville for a sixth year of eligibility.

His tweet read: “I still have unfinished business, I’ll be back.”

It turns out Burney’s message had little to do with coming back for another year. Actually, he’d already made up his mind more than three months earlier he was going to come back for a sixth year when U.Va. coach Bronco Mendenhall told Burney he wanted him back for another year, if at all possible.

Instead, Burney, 23, had his sights set on eliminating the lingering sting of defeat. The only way to do that was to suit up for the Cavaliers one more time to finish a career marked by overcoming injuries.

“It was kind of more of a thing I was pissed we lost the Orange Bowl,” said Burney, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end who graduated from Hickory High in Chesapeake. “That’s what I meant by ‘unfinished business,’ and it just so happened that it lined up with me having a sixth year.”

Though nothing is a given when it comes to NCAA evaluations in eligibility cases, Burney’s injury history seemed to make him a virtual lock to be awarded a sixth year, which he did receive.

Just getting to the point where he was in position to have a sixth year, and make a run at former defensive lineman Eli Hanback’s school record for games played (52; Burney has played in 41), seemed like a stretch less than two years ago. Mendenhall sees in Burney a lot of the qualities Mendenhall found so admirable in Hanback’s approach to the game.

“My hope is that Richard could be a steadying force much like Eli Hanback was,” Mendenhall said. “Eli was the anchor and the rock of our program, and really the epitome of all the things that I find really valuable in terms of guiding principles. So, that’s passed on now from Eli to Richard. Richard’s job is to be the gatekeeper and the holder of the keys basically for that culture. I think he’s embracing that and I think he’s done a really nice job with it.”

Opening his college career under former Virginia coach Mike London as a tight end, Burney lost all but three games in his freshman season in 2015 to an ankle injury. He played in eight games in ’16 before a broken wrist forced him to sit out the rest of the season.

“I kind of look at injuries as opportunities,” Burney said. “I say that because of coach Mendenhall – using adversity to make yourself a better person and appreciate the better things in life.

“As long as I can step foot on the football field, I’m going to play, no matter what injury I have.”

After being part of U.Va. teams in that won just six games combined in the ’15 and ’16 seasons, he got healthy and broke through in 2017 with three starts at tight end, but a big transition was on the horizon. He was moved to defensive end before the ’17 Military Bowl, where he debuted at the position and made a tackle in a 49-7 loss to Navy.

Proving to be a quick learner at end, he started the first three games of the ’18 season. They were the only three games he’d play that season before blood clots not only put him on the sideline again and could’ve ended his career, but also threatened his life.

“After that one, I thought I was done with football,” said Burney, who needed almost two months to regain normal lung capacity. “I definitely thought that one was going to put me out.”

Burney managed to get back to full strength, and was cleared to play again in May 2019. He ended up starting the opener last season at Pittsburgh, played in all 14 games and started five more times, including losses to Clemson in the ACC championship and in the Orange Bowl.

“Those games were where I kind of came out of my shell,” said Burney of the ACC title game and the Orange Bowl. “I was able to do some things I wasn’t able to do during the season. I think I just had more confidence. I’ve always kind of been that way. When the stakes get high, I try to perform my best.

“It was also about proving something to myself against the best competition. I got a great measure of where I’m at compared to some of the best guys (in college).”

With as many as 11 players vying for playing time on the defensive line in U.Va.‘s 3-4 scheme, Burney has no plans to take a backseat to anybody next season. Of course, the idea of next season is a bit of a question mark right now in terms of when it’ll actually happen, as the country continues to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Regardless, Burney will be there.

“I wasn’t going to leave (U.Va.) or anything,” Burney said. “If I had an extra year with coach, I was going to take it.”

Norm Wood, 757-247-4642, nwood@dailypress.com


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