There are good debut seasons. And then there are debut seasons like the one Justin Brent just had.
The Indianapolis native enrolled early in South Bend, exciting fans with his physicality and size that made him look like a potential fit in a receiving corps lacking a college-ready body like the one Brent already possesses. But Brent’s season was a roadmap of what not to do at Notre Dame, making headlines for all the wrong reasons as a mostly anonymous special teams performer.
(It’s not worth going over again, so just move on from here if you don’t know what happened…)
While he worked his way out of Brian Kelly’s doghouse before the bowl game, Brent enters his second season in a similar spot—looking for reps in a competitive wide receiving depth chart, and now having some negative headlines to overcome.
There were signs of a turnaround this spring, including a nice touchdown in the Blue-Gold game. But entering his second season, let’s take a look at the crossroads where Brent finds himself.
6’1.5″, 205 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 11, WR
Brent committed to Notre Dame waaaaay early, a full summer ahead of most early commits. But his recruiting profile rose steadily, especially when he lit up The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Chicago.
Brent didn’t have overwhelming offers, but that comes with pledging to the Irish after your sophomore season and playing running back out of need as a senior. He was a high four-star prospect according to Rivals regardless, and he looked it from the moment he stepped on campus.
Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch at wide receiver.
WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR
So the Irish coaching staff didn’t redshirt Brent, but you could’ve made the argument that it made more sense to do so, especially considering he played only on special teams.
The Crystal Ball looked pretty sharp, especially with depth chart issues and the craft of playing wide receiver likely contributing to the logjam in front of Brent.
It may have been a foolish prediction around Signing Day, but I get the feeling that Brent might spend the year redshirting. It’s a decision that Kelly pulled off with DaVaris Daniels, another receiver with NFL potential who was stuck behind Michael Floyd so this isn’t a referendum on his talent. But there just might not be enough footballs to make it worth using a year of eligibility.
Where Brent might slide into the mix is after Daniels heads to the NFL, which may be after the 2014 season. That would leave Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown as outside receivers, along with the unknown quantities that are Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Holmes (and an incoming freshman class). If Brent projects inside, he’ll likely have both Prosise and Carlisle still in the mix, though the staff believes he’s an outside receiver in the current system.
Snippets of UND.com practice videos aren’t necessarily the best evaluation tool, but Brent has some work to do sharpening his routes and getting more comfortable playing as a true wideout. But physically and athletically he looks the part of a dominant offensive weapon, and that’s a great place to start.
Brent starts fall camp in a pretty similar place, and that’s without considering the talent coming in as true freshmen to compete.
There’s still a ton to like about Brent as a football player, though I worry a bit about his smoothness in space and his hands, two things you don’t want to worry about for a receiver. So while he’s made some dazzling plays in practice, he’s also shown some struggles getting in and out of routes and catching the football, two traits that turn wideouts into safeties.
That’s not looking like the career path for Brent, but a detour could be in the making—especially if his maturity and decision making doesn’t take a very big step forward. Notre Dame’s in a tight spot with scholarships, and malcontents aren’t going to stick around anymore.
Brent’s best gift is an NFL body that he’s clearly spent hours crafting. But the development between the ears is what’ll be most important, and was certainly what Kelly challenged during spring drills every time he mentioned the Indianapolis native.
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.