Burbridge grabs role as Michigan State's go-to guy

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Aaron Burbridge insists the catch he made last week against Air Force was nothing special.

Forget the fact it was replayed on every highlight show — an acrobatic, 28-yard touchdown grab.

To Michigan State's senior wide receiver, it was truly no big deal.

Or so he says.

"It wasn't that spectacular to me," he said matter of factly. "I made the play and caught the ball."

But it was hardly a catch many receivers could make.

Michigan State was leading 14-7 with a little less than 11 minutes in the second quarter. After running back LJ Scott picked up 2 yards on a fourth-and-1, quarterback Connor Cook pump-faked, then fired to Burbridge streaking down the sideline.

Burbridge leaped in the air, pulled the ball down and got his left foot down in the end zone before his body slammed to the ground out of bounds.

The catch initially was ruled incomplete, but by the time the review had been completed, the play was overturned.

Burbridge's reaction? He made the touchdown signal with his hands and moved on.

Again, no big deal.

But that's just him. Burbridge is laid back and full of confidence.

"Not when he's on the field now, he can be real aggressive when he's on the field," wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said. "But his nature is, he'd rather not talk much. He'd rather not draw much attention to himself. So from Day 1, when I went to the house and recruited him and seeing how he kind of sat back and took it all in, that's his personality. But he's one of those guys you always want to be around."

He sure was someone Michigan State wanted to be around coming out of Farmington Hills Harrison as the top-rated player in the state in 2011. And in the fourth game with the Spartans, Burbridge had eight catches for 134 yards.

The greatness many expected from him was clearly coming quickly.

Few knew, however, it would be nearly three years before he'd match those numbers. After a decent freshman season, Burbridge was bothered by a hamstring injury in 2013, and last season ended up behind the Big Ten receiver of the year, Tony Lippett.

It was easy to overlook Burbridge, even though his coaches were confident they'd see the playmaker they're seeing today.

"He's had outstanding ability from Day 1 and has been a tremendous player for us really from the day he walked in this place," coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's been with the upperclassmen from Day 1, and maybe took about a week with the scout team, but other than that he's been with us."

Burbridge remembers his time on the scout team as "maybe a couple of days." But, as he was quick to point out, he was just coming off a torn meniscus, an injury that would put most players out an extended time.

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Not Burbridge, who made his debut in the second game of the season at Central Michigan and played 11 of 13 games.

Entering this season, there was all sorts of discussion about who would be the next No. 1 receiver. With Lippett gone, someone needed to step up. Burbridge says he heard the talk but never worried.

The worry came from others when Burbridge broke his foot in the spring and was out all summer.

"I was skeptical on his return and how he would be on the field," Cook said. "That's all receivers do is run. ... He had surgery and didn't run for two months, and when you're not running for two months and come back it's gonna be a hard return."

Burbridge said it was tough to sit on the bike while his teammates ran routes with the quarterbacks.

But like his freshman season, the injury hardly slowed him down.

"When he came back in camp he kind of picked up right where left off and I'm happy about that," Cook said. "He continues to get better."

Burbridge has gone over the 100-yard mark the first three games, and his 156-yard, three-touchdown performance against Air Force was something only two other Michigan State receivers have accomplished (Plaxico Burress twice, Andre Rison once).

"He's playing where he needs to be playing right now, and right when we need that guy to step up," wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said.

"Hopefully he just continues to make plays."