Justin Brent enters the second half of his Notre Dame career, with just about everybody hoping that the Indianapolis native makes headlines these next few years for better reasons than the last two. A physically gifted and versatile offensive player, Brent’s struggled to break into the two-deep—and to break out from Brian Kelly’s doghouse.
But there’s hope for the future. Brent just completed a redshirt season, spending his sophomore year learning the craft while staying out of trouble. It’ll allow him to enter 2016 with what amounts to a fresh start, still trying to find a role in the offense, but capable of contributing on special teams and at multiple offensive positions.
6’1.5″, 220 lbs.
Junior, No. 11 RB/WR
A four-star recruit, Brent didn’t have many offers, but that’s a product of committing to Notre Dame the summer before his junior season, a full calendar year before most early commitments. Brent’s performance at both The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge turned him into a borderline top prospect, understandable when you saw him workout or in non-football situations.
Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch or record a carry.
Sophomore Season (2015): Did not see action, joining fellow sophomore Corey Holmes as a redshirt.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
I suppose this deserves some credit, if only because Brent is still on campus fighting for playing time, not transferring to a new school.
While I’ve been pretty hard on Brent, I actually think the thing that struck me the most was the celebratory hug he shared with his head coach after the Music City Bowl victory. That didn’t look like an embrace you got from an exiled freshman with one foot out the door, but rather the look of a kid who seemed ready, willing and engaged.
One thing that might actually help Brent is starting quarterback Malik Zaire. It’s unlikely that Brent caught too many passes from Everett Golson in practices last season. But Zaire? The duo’s chemistry was on display in the Blue-Gold game, and could also help Brent’s confidence come training camp.
While I mentioned physical play as a way for Miles Boykin to get on the field, Brent’s the perfect body type to mangle defensive backs as a blocker on the edge. That’s a thankless job that requires pinpoint technique and buy-in, something we’ll see if Brent possesses.
This career could go two ways—a transfer or a four-year career that puts in the rearview a bumpy debut season. Next season will go a long way towards determining that path.
To be all-in on Brent the late bloomer feels a little bit pollyanna at this point. But it’s worth noting that in a career that feels like dog years right now, he’s still got three seasons of competition remaining.
Brent spent the spring working as a running back, showing a nice bit of playmaking in the Blue-Gold game with an improvised scramble drill that turned into a big play when Brent came back for the football and made a nice catch in traffic. He’ll likely start next season in the backfield, though he’ll be working behind Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.
If you think that stockpile at running back could turn Brent back into a wide receiver, you might be right. With the boundary position lacking bodies, perhaps Brent’s physicality could help him take a few snaps on the outside as well. (At this point, it’s not ridiculous to consider a move to the defensive side of the ball—especially as a group of young safeties get to campus and start swimming in the deep end.)
Watching Brent in person, you’re not spending your time worrying about the physique of a kid who stepped onto campus with an NFL body, but just wondering when he’s going to break through. But there’s also a lack of flexibility and limberness that stands out when you watch him, especially as he learns how to run the football as a taller back, susceptible to the big hit without the proper pad level.
Sign me up for Justin Brent on every special teams unit the Irish have, with the junior hopefully capable of making an impact as a blocker or tackler. From there, he’ll likely need to take advantage of some adversity to see the field.
If a running back goes down (and after seeing the past few years, we should be ready for one to go down), Brent will get his shot. The same goes on the outside, where redshirt preservation of a young freshman might make Brent—now three seasons into his college career—a better bet on quickly absorbing the job.
The hardest part of Brent’s career is over—making it through a redshirt season after finishing his freshman year in one of the more ridiculous off-field stories we’ve seen in a long, long time. With the tabloid fodder behind him, now all Brent has to do is find a way into the mix on offense, with hopes that taking advantage of some limited opportunities and turning them into regular playing time.