New York Post

Irish A-to-Z: Chris Brown

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Entering his third season at Notre Dame, junior wide receiver Chris Brown will need to play with a sense of urgency. It should come easily, thanks to a depth chart filled with young talent. No longer the underclassman with speed and promise, Brown’s half way through his eligibility, only scratching the surface of his talent, while the depth chart behind him now owns that tag.

Coming to Notre Dame as one of South Carolina’s premiere track and field athlete’s, Brown supplied one of 2012’s most memorable plays — a 50-yard reception against Oklahoma — but has failed to make much of an impact yet, with his 15 catches in 2013 (five coming against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl) and one touchdown largely non-factors in the Irish season.

But a promising spring practice where Brown was the leader of the position group (DaVaris Daniels’ absence made Brown the veteran member), has many thinking 2014 could be a breakout season.

Let’s take a closer look at the junior from Hanahan, South Carolina.

 

CHRIS BROWN
6’1.5″, 191 lbs.
Junior, No. 2

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

While his senior season was shortened because of injury, Brown was among the nation’s best track athletes, a triple jumper who put up prep records that would’ve had him winning a Big East title as a high school junior. Brown’s length and long speed were two things that Notre Dame just didn’t have on their roster, and were big reasons why Brian Kelly thought Brown was among the most under-rated prospects that the Irish were signing.

“If we were talking from an NFL standpoint and I was the general manager after draft day, we would consider this young man a “steal” of the draft,” Kelly said on Signing Day, 2012. “We believe he has a skill set that we do not have currently on this football team. 

“As you know he’s also a top triple jumper in the nation.  He’s got great explosiveness, good size at 6‑2.  He’s a guy that can take the quick short pass and turn it into a touchdown.  Could be a five‑yard completion, and he can take it the rest of the way. He has size and he’s got speed, and he hasn’t come close to his potential.”

Even if Brown was considered below-the-radar by recruiting services (Rivals.com had him listed as a three-star prospect), Brown took an official visit to Alabama, had offers from Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Saw action in all 12 games. Started two. First catch of his career was a 50-yarder against Oklahoma. Contributed a six-yard catch against Wake Forest.

Sophomore Season (2013): Started four games while appearing in all 13 for the Irish. Season-long catch of 40-yards against Purdue. First touchdown catch was a 15-yarder against Air Force. Made five catches against Rutgers, while racking up 57 receiving yards against Temple, a career high.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Heading into spring practice, I fully expected Brown to get passed by the youth on this depth chart, namely Will Fuller, who took over as the Irish deep threat, and Corey Robinson, who showed himself to be a more dependable pass catcher than Brown as a true freshman. (Even James Onwualu, before he switched sides of the ball, was looking more likely to be contributing than Brown in my eyes.)

But if we are to believe  what we heard this spring from head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, Brown had a great 15 practices and supplied the type of leadership and knowledge base that’ll get him onto the field early and often next season.

The truth is the Irish are desperate for a leader to emerge from this group. They expect DaVaris Daniels to be that player, though his absence from spring drills and inconsistency are more of a tease than an assurance. But Brown is the type of athletic and explosive receiver that maybe just needs a little bit more time to find his place in this offense, and perhaps the added work with the coaching staff this summer, and the urgency that comes with understanding that your college career is half over, will supply just that.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This prediction is completely dependent on a few key variables: First, the explosiveness that we’re hoping to see from the Irish offense in 2014, namely quarterback Everett Golson’s ability to hit big plays down the field. If that’s the case, then expect Brown to be one of the main beneficiaries.

Secondly, it’s dependent on Brown cleaning up his game. In a stable of sure-handed pass catchers, Brown stood out for a few careless drops. There was also the end zone interception against Pitt where Brown wasn’t competitive on the route. Those types of things are fatal in a Brian Kelly offense, and will get you taken off the field.

Perhaps we were expecting too much from Brown early, the product of remembering one singular play in a season where he only made two catches. Brown played his best in the Pinstripe Bowl, rebounding from the disappointment against Pitt and capitalizing on the opportunity after a month of practice.

I’m not entirely convinced that Brown is any better than the fourth receiver in this offense, and that doesn’t take into consideration slot players C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle. But if this offense runs optimally, there should be catches and touchdowns to go around, for Daniels, Fuller, Robinson and Brown.

We’ll know if the resurgent spring was coachspeak and the bowl game simply a data point come this fall. But Brown is the type of player that the Irish are counting on to help them score points, so his ascent could be crucial in 2014.

***

The Irish A-to-Z
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Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters. 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.