UCLA commit Austin Burton is now hoping to lead the Warriors out of a nosedive and into the state playoffs.
WINTER GARDEN The recruiting interest was coming, just not on par with where Austin Burton and his family thought it should be.
As a junior for Newton South High in the southeast suburbs of Boston, the 6-foot-4-inch quarterback had thrown for an eye-popping 3,299 yards and 34 touchdowns in leading the Lions to an 8-3 season.
Still, Burton’s only offer immediately following his junior season was from UMass — nothing to sneeze at, but still not what he felt his numbers warranted. Part of the problem, Burton knew, was that recruiters didn’t necessarily respect the level of competition he had been facing in Massachusetts.
As he reflected on this, Burton kept thinking about the high school down in Florida that his uncle, Phil Burton, kept telling him about — a school that had just advanced all the way to the FHSAA Class 8A State Semifinals for the first time in 2015 and which, as luck would have it, was in need of a quarterback.
That school was West Orange High, and it didn’t take much more than a visit before the ball was rolling and Burton was enrolled as a student in Winter Garden in time for the spring season.
“I was having good seasons up in Boston, but recruiting was tough because (colleges) don’t really respect the level of play up there as much as they do down here,” Burton said. “Also, I wanted to see how much different it is playing down here ... and you play teams with five, six guys going Division I.”
Leaving his family and friends just ahead of his senior year was a hard choice for Burton, but it’s hard to argue that it did not pay dividends. After working to get his timing accustomed to the speed of wide receivers in Florida, Burton made a splash by passing for five passing touchdowns in West Orange’s spring victory over Gainesville.
Then, the offers came — FIU, Boston College and, eventually, UCLA. Turns out, all recruiters needed to see was whether the cerebral passer with the big arm could hack it in Florida.
“That means everything,” West Orange coach Bob Head said. “UCLA, Boston College told me the same thing. It’s knowing that he’s that good and can play at this level. It was key for him.”
First, Burton committed to his hometown Boston College Eagles. Later, though, when UCLA came calling, the system and fit the Bruins offered seemed to be too much to ignore.
“It’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Burton said. “The offense fits me perfect.”
Of course, Burton did more than just earn scholarship offers. Within no time, the mild-mannered signal caller had earned the trust and support of teammates eager to keep the program heading in the right direction.
“He earned the respect of our team by coming here and just working hard and not saying anything,” Head said. “He put his nose to the ground and just put in lots of work and earned the trust of his team. ... He earned being a captain.”
Things were going well for Burton and the Warriors, but a storm was looming.
West Orange coaches knew that the team would face problems recreating its success from 2015 — any team graduating 18 starters would.
But, with Burton there to get the ball to a talented receiving corps, the staff felt they could offset a young defense and inexperienced offensive line with the ability to score in bunches.
What they could not have anticipated was the expulsion of two star receivers — Naquan Renalds and Jurrod Cook — for an undisclosed incident, and that a third receiver, Dashaun Collins, would quit the team.
'He put his nose to the ground and just put in lots of work and earned the trust of his team. ... He earned being a captain.'
— Bob Head, West Orange football coach
Suddenly, every issue that the team thought it could offset was now doubly glaring.
“We prepared all year to be scoring lots of points and being in shootouts,” Head said. “We were all pretty shocked. We’ve got a whole bunch of sophomores out there learning how to play varsity football.”
The result was that a team that had lost just one regular season game, combined, in 2014 and 2015 has now lost five in a row after beating Foundation Academy in Week One.
Through it all, Burton tempered his frustration and — most importantly — has led.
“Austin has done a good job of keeping his composure and helping those guys come along,” Head said.
Despite what looks to be a bleak situation on the surface, things might just be looking up. West Orange is through the roughest part of its bruising schedule and still can make the playoffs by winning its two remaining district games.
Burton and the offense have seen improvement in the Warriors’ past two games, moving the ball down field with much more ease, but struggling to finish drives. The running game has opened up and Burton is developing a bond with senior receiver Kyveon Jones.
“(Jones is) a really talented receiver, and I think he can do big things at the next level as well,” Burton said.
Though there has been an unexpected turn of events in his Florida adventure, Burton is too invested in his teammates and this season to ponder “what if?” He says the welcome from the West Orange community has been tremendous, and anticipates that friendships he has made here will last a lifetime.
Then, of course, there’s the weather.
Hurricanes notwithstanding, the talented quarterback seems to have already gotten used to the warm temperatures here in West Orange.
“I actually went back to Boston two weekends ago and it was 55 (degrees) and raining,” Burton said with a laugh. “I got off the plane and thought ‘this is freezing.’”
Sounds like a Floridian, doesn’t it?
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].