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Carolina Panthers

For football scouts, DJ Burns is a huge "What if?"

DJ Burns

CHARLOTTE — Football scouts are in the business of finding football players. They look everywhere. Even if that's beyond the football field.

So, like the rest of the sports-watching part of America and really America at large, the guys who are tasked with finding the next generation of NFL talent have noticed DJ Burns.

It's not like he's hiding. Or hard to find, since he's on every screen right now, the biggest story in basketball at the moment. The NC State center has helped carry his unlikely team to the Final Four this weekend (averaging 18.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game in the tournament), and he's also created a cottage industry of people wondering whether he could ever do anything else in sports.

"From what I've seen, I think he's got enough in his bag of tools to say he could probably compete at the highest level (in basketball) if he wanted to," Panthers director of college scouting Jared Kirksey said with a grin. "But if that didn't work out, maybe there's a chance he could play in the NFL. You could call him thick, but I see him as a stout guy who can do a lot of things."

Jared Kirksey

For starters, there's no indication that football's a thing Burns is thinking about, as he's fully in the moment with his Wolfpack teammates (which is part of what makes his story so fun).

But we're in draft season, so everything is an evaluation, and because of his size and grace, there are plenty of people wondering if his post play and athleticism could translate to mirroring a pass-rusher or blocking in the run game.

When Kirksey takes a brief moment to talk about the guy he's seen on television the last three weeks, there's clearly enough evidence to make him curious.

"I mean, a lot of times when you're looking at tackles, you look at their footwork, their ability to redirect, their lateral agility," Kirksey said. "Those are the things that he uses as his superpowers. Because this kid is athletic, he's really nimble on his feet. His ability to play around the rim is really impressive, in my opinion.

"So I was really impressed by this kid and how he's able to create a shot for himself. I mean, his ability to get up and down the floor is pretty impressive for a guy his size."

DJ Burns

Yes, his size. About that.

State lists Burns at 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds.

Because Kirksey's a scout, he operates in a world of measurables. Sometimes in basketball, they list guys as taller than they sometimes are, and in this instance, they may be generous with their listed weight as well (source: my two eyes).

"He looks closer to being a tackle bulk," Kirksey said, stating a thing that's obvious to even those who aren't professional evaluators.

(For comparison, Panthers left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, a fellow NC State man, is listed at 6-4, 320 and they seem equivalently large)

"I think this kid could be well over 300 pounds if he were to be trained for a football-type setting," Kirksey said. "Because basketball training and football training are two different things. Basketball, you're trained to be athletic, flexible, agility, and so forth. Football is more power, strength, especially for the tackle position."

DJ Burns

Ekwonu is not a bad comparison because his athleticism at tackle was one of his defining traits coming out of college. But the Panthers left tackle — who doesn't know Burns since he was gone by the time Burns arrived in Raleigh from Winthrop — doesn't want to put him in a box as an offensive lineman.

"He probably could," Ekwonu said with a laugh when asked if Burns could play football. "I think it's definitely not out of the scope of his talents, you know, putting his hand in the dirt.

"But I think he'd be a really good tight end. I feel like guys are kind of limiting him because of his size, but he got the kind of footwork where he could play anything."

DJ Burns

The size is the first thing you notice, of course. There have also been conversions from other sports like Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata, the 6-foot-8 former rugby player who has turned into a very good football player himself.

But there have been college basketball players who turn into NFL tight ends, guys like Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham and Mo Alie-Cox. None of them are Burns' size, of course (few people are).

That's why Kirksey would love to put Burns through the kind of evaluation they do of draftable players because when he sees Burns run the floor, he doesn't just see the girth; he sees the grace.

"I mean, when it came down to it, if he ran a 40 and he ran a sub-4.8, I mean, that'd be something to talk about," Kirksey said. "And I think this kid is athletic enough to do that. I mean, when you look at him, he's a specimen, whether it's tackle or tight end, he could probably play D-end. I mean, he's a specimen.

"For him to have that ability with his foot quickness, his athletic ability, his ability, body control wise, his balance is very impressive, so he could play in numerous spots."

DJ Horne, DJ Burns

With that size comes an obvious question about stamina. Burns averaged 24.8 minutes per game for the Wolfpack this year, but has upped that in the tournament, playing 28.5 minutes per game in the four NCAA games. That included 42 minutes in the overtime win against Oakland in the second round, so there's evidence of endurance.

Asked if that might translate into the 65 snaps of a three-hour NFL game, Kirksey said he didn't think it would be a problem.

"He's trained for basketball, right?" Kirksey said. "If he trained to be a football player, he's exploding for 5 yards and then depending on how a play ends up, he could be traveling a good 20 to 25 yards. I think conditioning-wise he'd be fine. I think it would be an easy transition for him."

Of course, the other key part of this is whether that transition is anything Burns is interested in. During an interview with Scott Van Pelt on ESPN Tuesday night, Burns smiled (he's always smiling) and said he wasn't thinking about that right now.

"I mean, with my size and everything, there's going to be all the memes and jokes and what-ifs, it's all cool for the media," Burns said. "But yeah, I'm a basketball player. I'm pretty sure about that."

DJ Burns

And make no mistake, plenty of people are fine with that, including Ekwonu and Panthers teammate Chandler Zavala, who know what a basketball run means at NC State (and both the men's and women's teams are in the Final Four).

"It's pretty cool what's going on right now," Zavala said. "To be a 10-seed in the ACC, an 11-seed in the NCAA. I mean, the women are always good, and they beat the one-seed (Texas) last week. So, it's pretty nice to see both basketball teams doing well."

Ekwonu remembers all the times he walked past the Jim Valvano statue when he was on campus at State, and growing up in North Carolina, he's well aware of the mythology of the 1983 championship team, even though it was 17 years before he was born.

"It would be great to make that kind of history, no doubt," Ekwonu said, admiring the run Burns and his teammates are on.

DJ Burns

So, for now, Burns playing football is just a "What if?"

But you also can't walk the halls of Bank of America Stadium without seeing images of Julius Peppers, another big man of exceptional athletic talent who played in a Final Four before becoming an NFL star.

"I mean, you know we had one here for a long time," Kirksey said. "He was special and rare."

So is the run Burns and the Wolfpack are on at the moment, whether he ever ends up pursuing another sport or not.

But if he ever does, there are certainly football scouts out there imagining what it could be like — because that's what they do.

View photos of defensive end Julius Peppers throughout his decorated NFL career.

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