May 27, 2014, 1:31 PM EST
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.
6’1.5″, 191 lbs.
Junior, No. 2
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.
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.
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.
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.