The last University of Miami defensive back to steal as many passes as junior cornerback Artie Burns was safety Sean Taylor, a name that elicits emotion every time it’s mentioned to a Hurricanes defender.
Burns, tied for third nationally with five interceptions after six games, needs another five to tie the late Taylor, who, along with 1987 Thorpe Award winner Bennie Blades, holds the school record for single-season interceptions with 10.
Burns refers to Taylor as “Sean T,” naturally, his favorite all-time UM defensive back.
“He had a savageness in him,” said Burns, now with more interceptions than 34 FBS teams. “I like the way he played, the demeanor he had and the pride he had for football. I just always loved watching him play. I’m trying to be like Sean T.”
Burns’ gift for takeaways has been contagious. The Canes (4-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who host sixth-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0) at noon Saturday, are No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin, with 11 interceptions (third nationally) and four fumble recoveries.
“He’s working like a dog,’’ UM coach Al Golden said of the 6-1, 197-pound Burns, a Miami Northwestern High graduate, who doubles as a track star and as a freshman broke the 38-year-old American junior record with his 7.68-second finish in the 60-meter hurdles at Albuquerque, New Mexico — equated to a 7.70 because of the altitude. “His mental toughness has improved. He takes a lot of pride being the first one in every drill. … He’s very receptive to coaching. He can self-correct.
“He’s staying humble right now. He’s doing the little things right now, and that’s making the difference.’’
He had a savageness in him. I like the way he played, the demeanor he had and the pride he had for football. I just always loved watching him play. I’m trying to be like Sean T.
Hurricanes safety Rayshawn Jenkins is the next-best ballhawk with three interceptions. Safety Deon Bush, cornerback Corn Elder and linebacker Juwon Young have one apiece.
“We love it, man,’’ Bush said of getting pumped when a teammate forces a turnover. “We’re family. They make a play and it feels like we made a play. We’re all in this together. When Artie makes a play it’s just a big joy.’’
Credit the offense, too.
Miami has turned over the ball only twice this season, one interception thrown by quarterback Brad Kaaya and one lost fumble — a significant difference from 2014, when the Canes had 15 turnovers through six games.
“It’s huge,’’ offensive coordinator James Coley said Tuesday. “That’s something we set out for in January, that we were going to take care of the football, that we were going to be one of the best teams in the country in not giving it up. It’s all about the football, it’s all about the football, it’s all about the football.’’
Clemson, an ACC Atlantic Division team that dominates on both sides of the ball, has not been as proficient in turnover margin. Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the ACC with 14 touchdown passes, but has thrown seven interceptions, including two Saturday against Boston College. Clemson has lost four fumbles and recovered four, and has intercepted eight passes — all of which account for a meager national turnover-margin ranking of 81st.
Turnover margin, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters Tuesday, “will be a big factor in this game.’’
Burns, 20, won several state high school titles in the hurdle events and grew up competing for coach and mentor Jesse Holt of the Northwest Express Track Club. At UM he runs the 110- and 400-meter hurdles, finishing second in the 110-meter event at the ACC Championships in 13.70 seconds.
He said he was last timed in the 40-yard dash for football in 4.38 seconds during the summer.
“I grew up doing both, and both bring a different type of emotion out of me,’’ Burns said. “Football has the team spirit and track I’m out there by myself.”
Burns’ younger brother Thomas, 15, is a sophomore at Northwestern and has orally committed to the Hurricanes. Younger brother Jordan, 12, is a seventh-grader and plays football at Gwen Cherry Park. They’re both fast and “always talking about coming to Miami,’’ Burns said.
Burns’ father, Artie Tyrone Burns Sr., began serving a 25-year sentence for cocaine trafficking on Feb. 28, 2006, and hasn’t seen his namesake since Artie was in fourth grade. They talk regularly, as recently as after the FSU game, and Burns said his father listens to his games on the radio.
“They’re reviewing his case right now, so we’re just praying and hoping everything goes well,’’ Burns said.
His mother, Dana Smith, a fellow former track star at Northwestern and an accountant for a hospitality company, keeps everyone going in the right direction.
“I am so proud of Artie,’’ Smith said. “Through all the adversity of not having a father, he’s overcome it and has been a positive role model for his family.”
For those who assume Burns will turn pro after his junior year, it’s not a given, said his mother. He still has a goal of running in the 2016 Olympics.
“To do that, he’d have to stay at UM,’’ Dana Smith said. “I’d love for him to get his degree, especially when it’s free.’’