LOS ANGELES -- Deontay Burnett, then a senior at Serra High in Gardena, sat in a history class when he needed to answer his cell phone.
It was the morning of Feb. 4, 2015, college football's national signing day, when prospects can sign their names on national letters of intent, the last hurrah of the recruiting cycle.Once the class ended, Burnett planned to join his teammates at a lunchtime ceremony in the school gymnasium. They would sign with various colleges. It would be official.
Burnett, a wide receiver, had been committed to Washington State for more than six months. Mike Leach's pass-happy program was the first Pac-12 school to offer him a scholarship. But he had prepared a surprise and planned to sign with another conference school, Arizona State.
A week earlier, Todd Graham, the Sun Devils' coach, had visited with the Burnett family at their Compton home. Deontay told Graham he would formally pledge on signing day, his father, Troy, recounted this week.
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But the phone call in class spawned another twist.
Tee Martin, USC's offensive coordinator and then its receivers coach, was on the other end.
Deontay left the classroom, ushered into an adjacent office for Scott Altenberg, the football coach at Serra who was the history instructor too.
Martin then offered him a scholarship.
"It was unexpected," Deontay said. "But as soon as I heard it, I was pumped."
He estimated the phone call came just 30 minutes before he ultimately signed his letter of intent. He told Martin he was coming. Deontay grew up idolizing Reggie Bush and the rest of the Pete Carroll-coached teams. Troy had been a fan, too, since growing up two blocks from USC's campus in Exposition Park. For years, most of the Power 5 Conference programs had overlooked Deontay, a three-star prospect, but it mattered little then. A dream materialized in minutes.
"We thought that ship had sailed," Troy said. "It was a total surprise."
As Deontay received the scholarship offer, Troy was ready to drive to Serra for the signing ceremony when Martin earlier broke the news to him, the first time the two had ever spoken. But first, he made one pit stop, at the Lids store at the Lakewood Center mall. He picked out a cardinal-and-gold flat brimmed hat.
It was the cap Deontay revealed when he stood behind a podium in the Serra gym and placed it atop his head as he announced his commitment later that day in front of other students.
He was USC-bound.
"I almost felt like I was stealing," Martin said.
Two years later, Deontay Burnett has emerged as USC's most unexpected No. 1 receiver of the past 15 years.
Since the modern era of college football recruiting, when recruiting websites Rivals and Scout emerged around 2002, all of the Trojans' leading receivers have been either five-star or four-star prospects.
Burnett, a junior, threatens to be the first three-star, a new mold.
Over the last three games, including the Rose Bowl when Burnett snagged the game-tying touchdown from quarterback Sam Darnold in the dramatic comeback victory, he has 29 catches for 427 yards and five touchdowns.
"The way he gets open," Darnold said, "he kind of demands the ball."
But most top colleges fretted about his size when they recruited him in high school.
"He was so slight," Altenberg said.
Even now, USC lists Burnett this season as only standing 6 feet and weighing 170 pounds.
Burnett remembered sensing that college coaches were disappointed when they would meet him in person. He surmised they thought he looked bigger on film.
No one specifically mentioned his small frame, but Deontay said, "I knew."
It was a little discouraging.
He had always been smaller than others his age, including in Pop Warner. Tony chuckled that it might have been because he wasn't a "big eater." He rarely finished his vegetables. But he made plays on the field.
"In his mind," Troy said, "it was, 'I can catch the ball, I know football very well.' That was his thing. I don't think he gave too much thought about his size until he started meeting college coaches."
Altenberg reasoned that's why Burnett never emerged as a more coveted high school prospect.
"That's a problem with recruiting today," Altenberg said. "They struggle with size. To me, the tape is more important than the size. It's not like Deontay's a midget or anything. He's big enough."
Martin was undeterred.
He first started noticing Burnett while visiting Serra practices to recruit his teammates, including Adoree' Jackson, the do-everything cornerback-receiver who also matriculated to USC and last season received the Jim Thorpe Award, the top honor for a college football defensive back.
The toughest receiver to cover, Jackson told Martin, was Burnett.
As signing day in 2015 approached, with USC's recruiting class brimming with talent and reaching its limit, Martin suggested an idea to then-coach Steve Sarkisian. Why not offer Burnett the chance to "blueshirt?" That meant his scholarship would count against USC's total for the 2016 class. Martin called it an "advanced scholarship." On the morning of signing day, Sarkisian acquiesced.
Burnett made it to campus for fall camp.
"Genetically, it is what it is," Martin said. "But the one thing I know is he catches the ball when it's thrown to him. And that's the part of the body I'm most concerned about: the hands."
It has certainly been one of the reasons Burnett has blossomed.
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Last season, he had 56 receptions on 73 pass targets, a rate of 77 percent. Among Pac-12 wide receivers who were targeted at least 50 times in 2016, no one snagged a higher percentage, according to data from SB Nation's Football Study Hall. The next highest: Washington's Dante Pettis (73 percent) and Washington State's River Cracraft (73 percent).
Burnett didn't start until the eighth game of last season, when slot receiver Steven Mitchell suffered a torn ACL.
Through two games this season, Burnett has 16 catches on 19 targets (84 percent).
"As a receiver, it's our job to catch," Burnett said, "and if we don't catch the ball, we're no good."
He repeatedly refers to catching the ball as his "craft."
Other coaches and teammates remark how Burnett smoothly navigates a secondary, too.
"Special awareness," Martin said.
"He's his own type of receiver," added Chris Hawkins, a senior safety for the Trojans. "He's not super fast, not super big, He's smart though."
His tying touchdown in the Rose Bowl came on a mid-route adjustment. Burnett was at first called on to run a 12-yard dig but instead turned it into a post pattern for a 27-yard touchdown. He ad-libbed it when he recognized no one else was running a route further downfield in front of him.
Burnett will at times adjust his routes.
He has displayed a certain chemistry with Darnold. It's a look.
"You just have to give the quarterback your eyes," he said, "because if you give the quarterback your eyes, they're more comfortable throwing it."
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Altenberg also pointed to Burnett's background as a quarterback. He was behind center on the freshman and JV teams at Serra, until he became a full-time receiver on varsity as a junior. He understands the "subtleties," Altenberg added.
USC coach Clay Helton agreed.
"It creates great football instincts," Helton said, "because you learn conceptually rather than just saying, 'Hey, I'm the X receiver, I've got a dig route, but I know all five guys on the field and what they got as routes."
One shared similarity Burnett does have with recent top receivers at USC is with Robert Woods, now with the Rams.
Woods, who also starred at Serra, started as a quarterback.
This article is written by Joey Kaufman from Orange County Register and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.