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.

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The Irish A-to-Z
Josh Atkinson
Nicky Baratti
Alex Bars
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Justin Brent
Kyle Brindza

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.