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Chronicling the meteoric rise of 49ers rookie Spencer Burford

UTSA’s co-offensive coordinator Matt Mattox joins us to tell us more about Burford’s journey to the NFL

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 02 Reese’s Senior Bowl Practice Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In April, rookie offensive lineman Spencer Burford was waiting to hear his name called on the third day of the NFL draft following an illustrious career at The University of Texas San Antonio. Instead, a few months later, Burford now finds himself entrenched as the starting right guard for a team that boasts one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL.

To get more clarity on what made Burford so prepared to make this monumental leap in such a short time, I reached out to someone who has worked extensively with Burford leading up to his arrival in the Bay Area.

I spoke with coach Matt Mattox, who is currently the co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach at the University of Texas San Antonio. Coach Mattox spent the last two seasons working extensively with Burford. He shared valuable insight into what makes Burford such an extraordinary athlete and why his rapid ascent should not surprise anybody.

Coach Mattox joined the staff at UTSA in December of 2019, getting his first chance to work with Burford during the offseason before his junior year. I started by asking coach Mattox what his first impressions of Burford were.

Number one, I had heard his name as a guy who had started on the east side of town here in San Antonio, he went to Wagner High. Amazingly athletic, a talented kid, I knew that coming in, we had guys on the staff that had been GA’s and stuff. When I met him, quiet kid, you could tell he was a sweet kid from the very beginning. That was kind of my first impressions coming into this from that position.

I knew watching film, obviously he played in the guard position in the season before and that situation. I knew what we were transitioning to that year, and offensive style what we were going to do. We wanted to move him out to be a tackle for us.

During his sophomore season, Burford started 11 games at the left guard spot. In his junior year, the first under coach Mattox, Burford saw action at right tackle for the first two games before moving to left tackle for the remainder of the season.

This is a noteworthy chapter of Burford’s story, given that he is now playing guard for the 49ers after making a move to tackle for the entirety of his last two seasons at UTSA.

To get more transparency behind the move, I asked coach Mattox what propelled the decision to have Burford change positions.

For us, some of it was a little bit of need. The guys that maybe were at tackle at the time couldn’t handle some of the athleticism things we needed them to do. Whether it was pass pro, our run schemes, our screen game. And Spencer was obviously unbelievable at that. Our defense was all heavy three down structure, and with him playing tackle, and us running our wide zone, and us running our GT counter, and us doing that type of stuff.

Him being able to handle 4i’s on his own, it made really good sense for the things we were going to have him do, and he could do, and he was obviously very talented in being able to adjust out to that position. He had unbelievably long arms, so he has the range and some things to do. And we kind of new he’d be a tweener potentially for the next level, but I think the best thing was him being able to show that he was that freak of an athlete. He can set on an edge and do that stuff too, and that showcased his skills to be able to move back into that guard position as well.

Burford not only seamlessly made the transition to the outside, he absolutely dominated in his new role. In his first two seasons, Burford logged 1,344 snaps on the offensive line, with only 50 coming at tackle. In his final two seasons, Burford logged 1,322 snaps, all of which came at the tackle position. Of those 1,322 snaps at tackle, 652 were in pass protection. Burford only allowed five sacks across those 652 snaps in pass pro.

I did think it was interesting that Coach Mattox noted that he had a good sense that Burford would profile as a tweener by teams at the NFL level. As someone who worked closely with Burford for years and helped facilitate his move to the outside, I was curious to hear what he thought the best spot for Burford would be at the NFL level to maximize his skillset both now fully and in the long term.

You know I could see him staying in there (at guard), especially like you said being such a great fit, obviously that’s why they drafted him to be where he’s at now. But I mean I also could easily see him being maybe that guy that can be a swing guy at tackle too if you need it.

And I think what that just is going to allow him to do is just have more and more opportunities to make rosters, to maximize the years of maybe the right tackle goes out, left tackle pops out, well Spencer is that guy that I do think. I heard feedback from multiple NFL teams, some had him at tackle, some had him at tweener, some had him at guard. So I think that this gives him the best opportunity to continue staying on the field, and it should make him even more valuable.

I was interested to hear more about the feedback on Burford that coach Mattox received from NFL teams. In addition, I was curious to know what in particular stood out about the NFL teams who reached out to coach Mattox to inquire about Burford.

Yeah, you know a lot of the people, and more so than anything a lot of wide zone in the NFL obviously, but the thing that I heard from people was his plays of him being in a poor angle, poor position right, you know defenses out leverage him to the play side. His ability to still be able to win those blocks, whether it was backside cut off on a backer, back side on a 4i or a 3technique, his ability and his athleticism to win blocks, even when he was at a disadvantage, was something that I think really started opening up people’s eyes when they started getting in on his game tape.

We pull a lot on GT, they got to see his athleticism, and not only did he pull, I mean he was knocking people over, and doing things like that while he was running. To see a big 300 pounder run like that, and as athletic as he was, I think that obviously helps with him. His plays where he was at a disadvantage, and his ability to still find a way to win kind of really gave him that next opportunity.

There were a couple of things that coach Mattox mentioned that we saw unfold in real-time during Burford’s NFL debut against the Green Bay Packers. The first was the ability to knock people over while pulling.

The other was a rep where I was very impressed with Burford’s ability to recover in pass protection while at a disadvantage.

You can see the athleticism and power coach Mattox referenced on both of these reps, even when Burford was in a less than advantageous position.

Another thing I wanted to know was a specific area that coach Mattox thought Burford improved on during his two years working closely with him at UTSA.

We had talks about his body and stuff, one of the big things was just he played at such an early age in college, and one thing as a big guy to do is your bottom half takes time to catch up in certain things in the weight room. He did an amazing job going from his junior year into his last year of adding the weight, getting his core and his body, his lower half especially, stronger and being able to be more powerful at the point of contact. So that was something I saw him take to the next level physically, and then mentally it was just learning how to “hey here’s the game plan”, we had expectations of, these are things we’re doing, boom, and once he started learning how we wanted things, and what we needed, the football part of it was something that came a long on the mental side of it too. So it was awesome to see, just kind of that growth from year one to year two.

Building on our conversation surrounding work ethic and improvement, I spoke with coach Mattox about Burford being one of only two players on the 49ers who took up Trent Williams on his offer to work out together this past offseason. I asked coach to talk a bit about Burford’s work ethic and some of the things he did behind the scenes during his time at UTSA that people might not be aware of.

He has, number one an unbelievable love for his teammates, so he doesn’t want to let his team down, that type of pride. Talk about a guy, one of our culture pillars, we talk about giving perfect effort, and that dude was a million miles an hour. We almost had to like protect himself from him, we had to make sure his reps were, during camp we didn’t get to crazy. So not having to coach effort, and him always showing up, and when you have your best players giving that type of effort, you know it’s just so much easier for a coach to not have to be harping on it. So that’s something that’s awesome and been great, and he was one of those guys that set the tone that way for sure.

As we continued our conversation, I wanted to hear more about coach Mattox’s thoughts about how Burford fits into Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Coach gave examples of how he thinks Burford’s game will translate into Shanahan’s scheme.

His ability number one play side to reach things, and his power and quickness off the ball. I think he’ll be able to jump on guys from the beginning, and then his ability with the backside cut offs and things like that where you can really take those four and five yard runs and get that extra 10-15 yards, I think he has a great ability to help with that in that scheme, and overall just his natural athletic ability.

After touching on that, I pivoted and asked coach Mattox if he remembered a moment where it clicked for him that Burford would make it to the NFL and play on Sundays.

I think it was probably, when I really knew, year one we played up against BYU. This was 2020, our first play of the game he pulled around on GT, and we had bodies hitting the floor all over. And BYU is large humans, they’ve had a lot of NFL guys. When I saw him be able to maintain and sustain and blow up those dudes, I mean obviously we knew he was freaky, but then you’re like “okay, yeah he’s fine.” Then when he progressed from year one to two with the physical and mental part of it, you’re just like “yeah this dude is going to be fine”. He’s just got to keep growing and get better everyday.

One of the areas I will always emphasize in my work is highlighting the human side of the sport of football. These are real people, just like you and me under those helmets and shoulder pads, and I try to do my best to create content that tells the story of the human being as much as it tells the story of the football player.

With Burford taking up a starting role on one of the most prestigious franchises in sports, I wanted to give a glimpse into who he is as a person and help to familiarize 49ers fans with a player who looks poised to be a key piece on the offensive line for years to come.

So, to wrap up my conversation with coach Mattox, I asked him to talk a bit about Burford as a person.

The type of person you’re going to get is a young man that’s got a ton of integrity. He comes from a great family, who’s got a great foundation, and does things the right way. Last to leave at my house every time we had a barbecue, helping my wife clean up, and he’s just a great kid. Football wise you’re going to get a kid who know’s that he’s going to give perfect effort everyday, he’s going to spend his time and surround himself with the people that can help him take himself and the 49ers to the next level. And you’ll also find he has a great personality, he’s funny, he can dance a little bit and all that good stuff, so you’ll get to see once he let’s that personality come out more and more.

As of now it certainly appears the 49ers struck gold yet again with a day three selection, as Burford has been everything you could ask for and then some to start his NFL career.