Auburndale High School head football coach Kyle Sasser can tell countless stories about Aubrey Burks. But, his favorite memory of Burks, who is IU football’s most recent 2021 commit, originates from last summer.
The Fourth of July was approaching, and Sasser gave his team the week off. There was no lifting, no film sessions, no voluntary walk-throughs.
Burks was hanging out with his cousin Malichi Lowery, who is also a defensive back on the Auburndale football team. Lowery’s father took a picture of the two lounging in the house and sent it to Sasser.
At the time, Sasser had some yard work to take care of at his house. So he picked up Burks and Lowery, figuring they could help out.Under a canopy of shrubs, Burks and Lowery took turns chopping down a tree with an ax. It was Burks’ first time attempting to slice down lumber.
“It was a thick tree, too,” Sasser said.
By the time their hands were covered with blisters almost three hours later, the wooden high-rise finally took a tumble.
“Those guys came over when they had the week off,” Sasser said. “Not a lot of kids are going to do that. That sums up the kind of guys that we have around here.”
On June 26, the IU football team added the 6-foot, three-star, lumber-chopping safety from Auburndale, Florida, to its 2021 recruiting class. Burks became the 10th 2021 commit.
When Sasser was announced as Auburndale’s defensive coordinator back in Burks’ sophomore year, the young defensive back was the first person to introduce himself. Sasser quickly understood why Burks had earned the starting job as a freshman and was already gaining attention from college coaches.
After meeting his new coach, Burks peppered Sasser with questions.
“I need the playbook,” Burks told Sasser. “What do you guys do for trips? What do you do if there’s a tight end?”
“He had this thirst for football knowledge,” Sasser said.
One time, Sasser was introducing a new cloud coverage where the safety roams behind the linebackers. Burks didn’t understand why he would be drifting further away from his man.
“I’m not even close to this No.1 receiver,” Burks pointed out. “Why do I have to cover him vertically?”
Sasser explained that they were disguising coverage to confuse the offense.
“Oh, Coach, that makes sense,” Burks said. “It’s like chess.”
When Burks has down time in school, he watches a film of Auburndale’s next opponent. He picks three of the team's most frequent running plays and strategizes how to crash the offensive line. Sometimes, he’ll examine each individual matchup between his teammates and the offensive players.
Burks also asks the same question to multiple coaches to see how they respond.
“You get a better understanding of football, no matter who you play,” Burks said. “The more questions you ask, the more you know and the more you can pass along to the next generation coming up.”
In a game near the end of his sophomore year, Burks’ shoulder was knocked back while he was going in for a strip. He finished the season but had constant aches.
In December after his sophomore year, after talking with Sasser, Burks decided to accept a spot on IMG Academy’s football team. Shortly after arriving, an MRI on Burks’ shoulder showed that there was damage, and surgery was imminent. It was just a matter of how long he wanted to put it off.
Burks was slated to start for IMG, but an injury could leave him tumbling down the depth chart. Around the same time, Sasser was named the head coach at Auburndale.
Two months after transferring to IMG, Burks returned to Auburndale and underwent surgery on his ailing shoulder. Meanwhile, the attention from college coaches slowed.
While he was sidelined in the spring, Sasser recalls that Burks came to every practice, every workout and every seven-on-seven jamboree.
After a couple months of physical therapy, his shoulder had fully healed. Burks noticed progress in his lifting and added muscle to his frame.
Last season, Burks bounced back from his injury with 63 tackles, 17 of which were for loss, while totaling six sacks. He also added three forced fumbles and two interceptions to his stat-line.
Burks’ most impressive performance may have come in week three against Pasco High School.
During Pasco’s first offensive drive, Burks toed the right side of the line. The snap bounded over the quarterback’s head, and Burks accelerated past the offensive line in pursuit of the pigskin. As the quarterback retreated, Burks shoved him to the turf while swiftly scooping up the ball and rolling into the end zone for a touchdown.
On the next possession, Burks moved toward the line of scrimmage, then dropped into coverage to confuse the offense. He snagged an interception and took it back for another touchdown.
“His eyes are his most valuable asset because he sees things fast and almost before they happen,” Sasser said. “It’s really interesting to watch.”
Later, the Pasco running back cut outside of the tackle and Burks patiently bumped past a blocker to stuff the play. While wrestling him to the ground, Burks plucked the ball cleanly out of the running back’s arms and gained possession.
Auburndale won 50-0.
Burks’ final stats for the night: eight tackles, two for loss, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and two touchdowns.
He was on the field for 15 total defensive plays.
“That is probably by far the most productive I’ve ever seen a player play,” Sasser said.
IU came calling with a scholarship offer last fall. Burks didn’t know much about Bloomington or the Hoosiers and didn’t think he’d consider them.
Burks was in contact with IU defensive backs coach Kasey Teegardin and IU safeties coach Jason Jones. Every other week they would watch film, and, of course, Burks would ask his share of questions. The coaches explained how Burks would fit into their 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The alignment includes a roaming husky position that serves a run defense and pass coverage hybrid.
“As more coaches started talking to me, and they started breaking everything down as far as how they can use me, they got in the rotation of me possibly going there,” Burks said.
Burks racked up more than 30 offers, but cut his list down to seven schools in May: the University of Louisville, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of South Florida, Mississippi State University, West Virginia University, Georgia Tech Institute of Technology and IU.
As 2020 came around, Burks started speaking regularly with IU head coach Tom Allen.
“If someone tried to commit at the husky position right now, we would call you first to give you a chance to commit,” Allen told Burks.
Another major key was when Burks saw the recent Florida to IU pipeline, with seven IU players making their way north from the Sunshine state in the 2019 recruiting class. Among them was defensive back Tiawan Mullen, who was named a freshman All-American by The Athletic last year and was also a former three-star recruit.
“They weren’t going up there for no reason,” Burks said. “I sat down, and I knew Indiana was where I wanted to be.”
Burks verbally committed to the Hoosiers without ever stepping on campus. After the announcement, junior defensive back Devon Matthews and senior defensive back Raheem Layne, both of whom are from Florida, reached out to Burks. Senior Marcelino Ball, who features at the husky position for IU, also messaged Burks.
Burks isn’t the most heralded prospect in the 2021 class. Four-star quarterback Donaven McCulley is the highest ranked, while Burks hangs in the middle of the group at No. 761 nationally.
“He’s looking to prove something,” Sasser said. “The kid just has an instinct for the game. He puts in the work and watches the game.”
Burks plans to visit IU in December, where he’ll see Memorial Stadium and the Bloomington campus for the first time in-person. While preparing for his final year of high school, Burks has already set goals for when he arrives in Bloomington.
“Come in, and make an impact," Burks said. "Even if I’m not a true freshman All-American, just see the field, learn about Bloomington, make friends and enjoy college.”
But the inquisitive, instinct-driven, budding lumberjack also put his hopes into simpler terms, alluding to a fellow Floridian.
“What Mullen did.”