Long before Matt Burke was a faceless coaching grunt, let alone an NFL defensive coordinator, he was psychology major at Dartmouth who also happened to also play football.
Burke acknowledges he wasn’t the most physically gifted athlete and only made the Big Green’s roster as a walk-on.
No, he went to school to learn and spent his formative years studying how the mind works.
Two decades later, Burke is about to call his first regular-season defensive game on any level. And while X’s and O’s are important, Burke will rely nearly as much on his Ivy League degree for success.
Burke has a natural ability to connect with his players on a human level, a big reason why Dolphins coach Adam Gase entrusted the job of turning around Miami’s historically bad defense with a career assistant.
Burke’s debut — Sunday against the host Los Angeles Chargers — was delayed, like everything else surrounding the Dolphins this season, by Hurricane Irma.
“It took long enough, right?” Burke deadpanned Thursday. “I’m excited. I really am.
“Probably for me, the hardest thing last week was just that. We were building and building and building and the anticipation of playing. … For me it was not getting to have that game. I was pretty amped up and the week, the process of the week is such that it kind of builds like that throughout.”
Make no mistake: Burke will be jacked up at 4:05 p.m., when the Dolphins become the final NFL team to open their season.
And while Burke has plenty of built-in excuses if the defense doesn’t take a big leap forward in 2017 — two potential starters (Raekwon McMillan and Tony Lippett) are out for the season because of injuries, the Dolphins will have to play 16 consecutive weeks — he won’t even entertain them.
Take, for example, Burke’s approach to Miami’s obvious hole at middle linebacker. McMillan was supposed to start there but will miss his entire rookie season with a knee injury. Miami then signed out-of-shape veteran Rey Maualuga, but he won’t play because of a hamstring injury.
So the job of stopping Chargers running back Melvin Gordon falls to Mike Hull, a second-year linebacker who tries hard, but has real physical limitations (the Dolphins list Hull at 6-0 and 232 pounds).
Hull has been doubted because of his size ever since he entered the league, and those questions continued this week. So Burke on Thursday employed an old psychology trick — positive reinforcement — through the media, possibly to keep his young defender’s confidence up.
“Mike Hull is the guy there everybody always wants to count out,” Burke said. “Everyone looks at him and thinks he’s too small or too this or too that. Every time we’ve had to play him, whether it’s in game situations, practice — he’s already ready. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great instinctive football player. He’s always around the ball. I mean I have the utmost confidence in Mike Hull playing football for us.”
When told later about those comments, Hull responded: “Definitely is good whenever you can hear that. It puts it on my shoulders to go and prove him right this weekend. … There couldn’t be a better guy to get us motivated to play.”
Burke has been motivating NFL players since 2004, when then-Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hired him as an administrative assistant. Burke spent five seasons in Tennessee and never held a title higher than quality control coach.
And yet, he made a lasting impression on those around him. Defensive end William Hayes’ first year in Tennessee was Burke’s final season there. Nearly a decade later, they’re reunited in Miami.
“You always remember him as a guy that brought all that energy,” Hayes said. “Working, just kept guys up. His role probably wasn’t as big as it is now. He’s always been a guy who’s always tried to bring the best out of all of his players.”
Burke feeds off that personal connection, a big reason why he will be on the field during the game Sunday and not high above in a coach’s booth.
When things go sideways, as they inevitably do, Burke wants to be able to “grab a guy and look him in the eye and say, ‘Hey man, this is what we’re doing,’ and I can get a better feel for that and kind of get a pulse of the sideline, the team.
“I have no problem getting amped for games, trust me. No problem. I’ll be screaming and spitting and doing whatever I do out there.”