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Tech grad Nathan Burton: ‘Surreal’ to be back

Britney Burton knows all about moving. Since she and new Georgia Tech co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Nathan Burton were married in 2006, they have made seven moves in 11 years and done so with a growing brood.

No. 7, though, was the easiest, even with four boys under 9 years old. The Burtons, who both grew up in Georgia and are Tech graduates, are coming back home.

“Nathan and I, we love Tech, we love Atlanta, being around family and friends,” Britney Burton told the AJC. “I mean, how often does that happen? So we were just so thankful that it worked out.”

Nathan Burton, who grew up in Gwinnett County and lettered for the Yellow Jackets at safety 2001-04, had his own way of describing his fortune.

“I think I played the LeBron James ‘I’m coming home’ tribute in own eyes and just closed them and was like, That’s me, that’s me, that’s me!” Burton said. “It just hasn’t hit. I’m excited.”

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Burton walked on at Tech in 2000 before earning a scholarship, graduating in 2005 (applied biology) and then serving as a graduate assistant for four years. His time at Tech was so long that he was there for both of coach Geoff Collins’ stints, 1999-2001 (GA and then tight ends coach) and then 2006 (director of player personnel).

The love for Tech never left. Over the years, the Burtons stayed in touch with former teammates, classmates and friends and hoped an opportunity might open up to return. When Nathan was hired at Temple by Collins last year, it was in the back of their mind that Collins might eventually help them get back to Tech. So when coach Paul Johnson’s decision to step down after 11 seasons became public, the anticipation skyrocketed.

“It’s surreal for me,” Burton said. “I just can’t believe they wanted me back. I’m happy.”

When he met with media Saturday along with running backs coach Tashard Choice, Burton toted an aging Tech tumbler, one that held his coffee on his daily commutes to Temple.

“I don’t even know where it came from,” Britney said.

He said he got congratulatory texts from old lab partners, wondering if his number had remained the same. (It had.) Since taking the job, Nathan has been living with his parents in Lilburn, where his mother Linda broke out his old Tech gear that she had packed away.

“He actually wore a couple sweatshirts into work this week from when he was playing,” Britney said.

Even better for the Burtons, being back home means that his eldest three sons can enroll at Greater Atlanta Christian, where he and his siblings went to school and both of his parents worked.

New Georgia Tech co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Nathan Burton with wife Britney and their four sons (left to right: Grady, William, Isaac and Charlie) at the Lincoln Memorial this past summer. (Courtesy Britney Burton)

Beyond his Tech background, Burton possesses a connection with all three of Tech’s most recent coaches. He played for George O’Leary and Chan Gailey and then coached for Gailey and Johnson as a graduate assistant. O’Leary made an impression on Burton with his attention to detail and organization. With Gailey, it was his character. He called Gailey “one of the best men that there ever was, and he’s a really good coach,” one who has continued to mentor him. Burton said that Johnson is “probably one of the smartest individuals that I’ve ever met” and added that his ability to see the game and adjust in-game “got taken for granted around here a little bit.”

As Collins endeavors to connect former players with the team, Burton’s extended time at the school (five years on the roster, four as a GA) makes him a natural liaison for scores of ex-Jackets.

Beyond that, being a part of the past two coaching transitions at Tech (as well as one more as an assistant coach) provides him a better understanding of how to navigate the change, as players are getting to know an all-new staff, replacing coaches who had recruited them and bonded with them. Burton stressed the importance of establishing relationships with players and showing care.

“Now, we’ve got to build that,” Burton said. “We’ve got to work into that. They’re not just going to trust us day one, but they will. By the time we get to game one, they’re going to have absolute trust in us, and we’ll have trust in them.”

It may help Burton that he has had at least 13 players receive postseason recognition in eight seasons as a defensive coordinator or position coach. As defensive backs coach at Temple this past season, the Owls tied for fifth nationally with 18 interceptions and two defensive backs were named all-conference.

As safeties coach, he’ll inherit a number of talented young players, such as Juanyeh Thomas, Tariq Carpenter and Kaleb Oliver, players who are in the same spot he was 15 years ago. 

“So you talk about full circle – it’s a pretty neat deal,” Burton said.

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