Can NC State's DJ Burns go pro in junior football?

Glendale, Ariz. – Long before NC State's spectacular run to the Final Four, an NFL scout living near Raleigh, NC sent a text message to his longtime friend Jim Nagy.

Nagy, an 18-year NFL scout and current executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl, says, “NC State got out of the tournament quickly, so he's hoping he can go in there and try to do it quietly. .”

What is Scouting?

He wanted to coach NC State center DJ Burns Jr. … and evaluate whether Burns, the breakout star of this NCAA tournament, has the potential to play professional football in the future.

“A scout's mind goes there,” Nagy adds. “You watch basketball games and you're so curious about what these guys look like with shoulder pads and helmets.”

In Burns' case, it's easy to see why. Burns — an ACC Tournament and South Region MOB whose stellar play led the Wolfpack to their first Final Four since 1983 — is listed at 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds. But it was the big man's size that caught the attention of football front offices. This is his footwork, which he uses to pin opponents in position and then spin or spin them. It was his deft touch, the array of scoop layups and feather floaters he produced during NC State's run. And while often the biggest player on the floor — he won't be Saturday against Purdue's 7-foot-4 center Zach Eddy — Burns is surprisingly quick and athletic.

Nagy saw it all during NC State's Sweet 16 win over Marquette last Friday — when Burns had just four points but tied his career high with seven assists — and tweeted about his ploy:

Almost immediately, three different NFL executives — a general manager, an assistant general manager and a college scouting director — texted Nagy: We are sitting here thinking the same thing.

Burns wasn't the first basketball player to go helmetless to attract the attention of football scouts. (Burns played football as a kid until he got his first scholarship offer from former Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “Then I quit right away,” Burns said with a laugh.) Many successful tight ends — stars like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, and Jimmy Graham — became basketball players. There, they turned their rebounding skills into high-pointing footballs for touchdowns. Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers started for North Carolina's football and basketball teams.

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Nick Baumgartner — Covers the NFL Draft Athletic – Burns compared the situation to current Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman George Fand, who was in high school.

“He was a skinny, talented high school power forward who had never played competitive football,” Baumgartner says. “He eventually swelled to about 230 and went to Western Kentucky on a basketball scholarship as an undersized — albeit really athletic — forward. He could run the floor, was a good shot blocker and a strong defender who always played above the rim.

“He was 6-foot-5 when I met him and 6-foot-5 when he finished four years of hoops. Nowhere near tall enough to do anything in the NBA. However, George had nearly 35-inch arms and a weight-bearing frame. He had his vertical ( 37 inches) and kept a natural agility with his extra bulk, and over time, it clicked. He never played real football in high school, but his eighth NFL season last year was an offensive one.

Of course, all of this is nonsense without asking one key question:

Burns — who grew up in Rock Hill, S.C. — also known as “Football City, USA” — is interested in moving back to the gridiron?

“Zero,” he said Thursday. “I mean… yeah, zero.”

Burns' trainer, Kevin Keats, also struggled to see it happen.

“Yeah, he's not going to play football,” Keats said. “I mean, listen, he has a great connection. He's not as much of a bully as you might think. Ask, have you spent some time with him? He's a teddy bear off the court.

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Of course, that could always change when NC State's season finally ends: against Purdue on Saturday or the winner of Connecticut and Alabama on Monday. (Burns has a solid NIL income right now, but wait until he asks what the NFL money looks like.) Burns has 80 minutes left in his college basketball career … and then he has to figure out what's next. Burns said Wolfpack's run — and his role in it — “definitely helped a lot” in terms of his professional ring prospects. “It went a little overboard with things.”

“I'm not a basketball scout. Who knows? This guy could be an NBA player or a foreign player. I didn't know that,” says Nagy. “I'm not saying he's not. It's a passion of a guy who's been an NFL scout for a long time.

Logically speaking, if Burns were to pursue any kind of pro-day workout, it would have to happen right after NC State's season. Nagy said it would be reasonable for Burns to take a week to prepare himself before a workout in front of evaluators — the moves and drills NFL scouts are eager to see. Interested teams will have a week or two — the NFL draft is only three weeks away — to meet with Burns and interview him. But apparently, there isn't much turnaround time.

And yet: NFL decision-makers — like the ones who texted Nagy — have interesting enough physical attributes to expect him to pursue some kind of practice.

“Everything about those post spins translates to something you're looking for offensively. His ability (length) and his ability to pick the ball up from bad angles (arm strength), how tight and controlled he spins before he can reset himself (explode),” Baumgardner says. “An offensive tackle's pass set up against an edge rusher is no different than the technique Burns uses to mix defensively in the lane. The faster a tackle can get out of his stance and enter his set — or shuffle — the harder it is for those super-athletic pass rushers to get the corner.

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Nagy's tweet about Burns has garnered 1.2 million views and counting. He has made several podcast appearances explaining his thought process around NC State's biggest basketball star.

The same Raleigh-area scout who walked into NC State and thought Burns Out would work on his own?

“Now that DJ's blown up,” Nagy joked, “that's not going to happen.”

AthleticNick Baumgartner contributed to this story.

(Photo of Duke's Mark Mitchell at DJ Burns Jr. Boxing: Lance King/Getty Images)

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