He was the kid with the hair and the hyphen, an undersized Washington inside linebacker who provided great effort but truthfully was a starter by default.
Nobody in the program dared say anything negative out loud, but Ben Burr-Kirven moved into the Huskies lineup last year because Azeem Victor, projected as a first-team All-America candidate and a first-round NFL draft pick, clearly wasn’t anywhere near the same player after breaking his leg in 2016.
Victor basically saw his football career come to an end as he knew it when his bones snapped against USC and Burr-Kirven had his college tour of duty launch when it became clear that the healing process had been grossly unfair to his more celebrated teammate.
“I got an opportunity and made some plays here and there, and I got the coach’s trust,” Burr-Kirven said of making the opportunity work. “The biggest thing was just showing them I could do it.”
A year later, Burr-Kirven isn’t any heavier—in fact, he got tired of his shoulder-length blond hair and had it lopped—but he’s become a surprisingly good player for the Huskies. The senior from Menlo Park, California, received consecutive Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors for gritty performances against Utah and Arizona State, collecting 13 and 20 tackles respectively the past two weeks. He’s made people take more notice of him.
“The kid is a gamer,” said former UW linebacker Jason Chorak, the 1996 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. “It seems like when the Huskies play, there’s no emotion out there. He’s one of the few who brings emotion to the game. He gets fired up.”
Burr-Kirven leads the Huskies and ranks fifth nationally with 53 tackles. His 20-tackle outing was the most for a UW player since linebacker John Fiala chalked up 22 against Arizona State in 1996. Linebacker Michael Jackson holds the record for most tackles in a game with 29, doing it twice, after reaching that number in 1977 against Oregon State and Washington State.
Chorak believes Burr-Kirven’s most recent tackle output was every bit as impressive, considering how much the college game has changed.
“Today, it’s harder to get that many tackles because teams don’t focus on the run like they used to, like they did with the Wishbone; it’s a lot tougher with the spread offense,” he said of Burr-Kirven’s challenge in logging stats. “Not only do I respect his numbers I respect how he plays the game. He’s going 100 percent on every down.”
On the third defensive snap against ASU, defensive lineman Greg Gaines and Burr-Kirven teamed up to drop running back Benjamin Eno for a one-yard loss, giving the linebacker his first tackle. Burr-Kirven was credited with two more on the next Sun Devils possession and just kept adding to his total. He forced a pair of fumbles, too, recovering one himself.
Burr-Kirven, whose hyphenated last name pays homage to each of his parents, relies on great instincts and decent quickness to shoot gaps and find the ball, and he’s a classic form tackler, always wrapping up. Yet he surprised himself with his weekend tackle total.
“They ran a lot a lot of plays in the areas I can get to, and if the ball’s up, I’m going to keep running to the ball until it’s down,” he said. “There were just a lot of plays where I’ve got to get there. … I was surprised I got 20. I didn’t have any idea how many I got. I knew I had a lot, but I never would have guessed 20.”
Near the end of the first half, Burr-Kirven chalked up five tackles in nine plays in one particularly active defensive series as he ran around the field unblocked. Late in the third quarter, he caught the Sun Devils’ Trelon Smith from behind on a pass play out of the backfield, and he punched the ball loose and jumped on it practically in one motion.
“The thing I like about him is he doesn’t take a guy head on and get tangled up with him,” Chorak said. “He takes an angle and makes plays.”
Victor was unemployed after getting drafted in the sixth round and going through training camp with the Oakland Raiders, drawing his release no doubt because of his noticeable drop in speed, before the Seahawks signed him to their practice squad this week. Burr-Kirven, who's two classes shy of graduating from Washington with a degree in film, intends to put any Hollywood pursuits on hold while pursuing a pro career.
“I want to play in the NFL—that’s my goal,” he said. “Hopefully, I can play ball after college and keep doing this.”
At 6 foot and 221 pounds, little Ben better resembles a strong safety, hardly someone who’s been a physical stalwart on the Husky defensive second row. For now, he’ll try to enjoy a memorable senior season, something that eluded Victor, who in his angst was suspended twice by the coaching staff, the last time for good.
Chorak belongs to an elite club of Huskies—he’s one of four UW recipients of the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award, joined by the sterling crew of defensive lineman Vita Vea (last year), linebacker Dave Hoffman (1992) and defensive lineman Steve Emtman (1991). Chorak thinks Burr-Kirven, if he can keep his tackle numbers high and come up with big plays, can make it five Huskies with no defensive equal.
“Hopefully, this kid keeps playing well and does it, too,” he said. “He’s not a typical linebacker.”