ALBANY — It was difficult to find someone smiling as often as redshirt freshman Damon Burton during Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage for the University at Albany football team.
“But I’ve been so excited all spring,” Burton said after the scrimmage that pitted head coach Greg Gatuso’s offense against his defense.
It’s easy to understand why that’s been the case for Burton. The Rochester native was a possible defensive starter last year for UAlbany, but fractured his left tibia — just as he had early in his high school years at Aquinas Institute — last preseason. Instead of being on the field with his teammates as they prepared for their 2018 season, Burton spent the majority of his time in bed sporting a full-leg cast and playing Fortnite.
“That was totally what I did. Not going to lie,” Burton said with a laugh. “That, and I watched a lot of Netflix.”
UAlbany went 3-8 during its 2018 season, which saw the Great Danes deal with a number of significant injuries. In particular, UAlbany dealt with severe personnel losses on the defensive side of the ball; the 5-foot-9, 194-pound Burton had projected to start in UAlbany’s secondary before his injury, and he was one of several lost players that UAlbany had expected a significant contribution.
“It’s just part of football. It’s just the way it is,” said Gattuso, whose program is still getting healthy five months after its last game. “You’ve got to overcome it.”
Burton’s injury didn’t require surgery, but he was largely inactive for a couple months. At the midway point of last season, Burton started upper-body workouts. Early this year, he was able to begin lower-body exercises. Since UAlbany started its formal spring practices in late March, Burton has been on the field.
“I’ve been full-go. I haven’t sat out at all,” Burton said. “They told me that if I get sore at all to sit out, but my recovery and everything I did during it helped me, so I haven’t had to do that.”
That is a good thing, since Burton is playing more as a linebacker this spring than as a safety. Burton is one of several defensive players this spring UAlbany is experimenting using in a different role, with the goal aimed at increasing overall team speed.
“Last year,” Gattuso said, “I just don’t think we were disruptive enough and chaotic enough [against opposing offenses], and that’s what we’re working on.”
Burton worked with the first-team unit Saturday for UAlbany, and that group had a lot of success — especially in the first half of the day’s scrimmage before the offense produced some highlights of its own in the second half.
“The good part was the offense pushed back today — a lot — and that’s been the way practice has been up to this point,” Gattuso said.
Before UAlbany’s formal spring game takes place April 27 at Troy High School, which will be open to the public, Burton said the Great Danes want to continue to make progress remodeling its defense.
“We’re going to challenge people,” Burton said. “The CAA’s got to watch out.”