Our series on Now or Never players for Notre Dame in 2014 rolls on today by staying at the wide receiver position where we look at junior speedster wide receiver Chris Brown. Last year at this time we pegged the then sophomore to be as a potential breakout candidate for the Fighting Irish in 2013, but Brown managed just 15 catches for 209 yards and a single touchdown last fall.
As Brown enters his junior season, can perhaps the fastest wide receiver on the roster establish himself as a vital weapon in the Irish arsenal or will he get passed on the depth chart by a growing pool of wide receiver talent that Brian Kelly and company have built? Let’s take a look.
Coming out of high school in South Carolina, Chris Brown received some mild interest from major programs with offers from the likes of Virginia, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Illinois, North Carolina, and Wake Forest. Most of that interest came from local schools and was based mainly on the potential that Brown possessed due to his elite speed.
After an impressive junior prep season that saw Brown catch 52 passes for 1,098 yards and 16 touchdowns, Brown’s production dipped drastically as a senior due to a broken collarbone. He recovered before the end of the season but capped off his high school career with just 33 catches for 532 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Had Brown remained healthy as a senior and replicated his junior success it is very possible that he could have garnered more interest from top programs. Two weeks before Brown visited Notre Dame for an official visit that resulted in his commitment to the Irish, he visited Tuscaloosa for a visit with the Crimson Tide without an offer in hand. Miami was also expressing some interest along the way as well.
As a freshman, Brown had just two catches but one of them was one of the biggest catches of the 2012 regular season for Notre Dame. Brown hauled in a 50 yard bomb from Everett Golson against Oklahoma as the Irish stormed in Norman for a 30-13 road upset.
Reason for Optimism
Even though Brown hauled in just two passes as a freshman, he showed the ability to get open down field. Two years ago though Brown was still very raw and much like Golden Tate in 2007, his route repertoire was limited to basically go routes as he learned the position. It was assumed that last year Brown would take a step forward just like Tate did in 2008. No one thought Brown would have 1,000+ yards like Tate, but more was expected than 15 catches and 209 yards.
The problem for Brown in 2013 was that he is a vertical passing threat and Notre Dame didn’t have the necessary components to have a dangerous vertical passing game. The good news for Brown is that they do in 2014 with the return of Everett Golson and his strong right arm. Tommy Rees was an extremely accurate passer for the Irish over his career, but it’s not secret that he didn’t have a cannon and that limited how much Notre Dame could utilize Brown’s big play speed.
With Golson back under center for the Fighting Irish offense, Notre Dame figures to have a much more dynamic offense in 2014 that can utilize the downfield threat that Brown adds to the Notre Dame offense. With TJ Jones headed to the NFL and Brown the most experienced wide receiver on the roster ready to challenge for that open position, Brown will have every opportunity to lock down that position. If he does, that will set up Brown for a breakout junior season.
Reason for Doubt
More was expected of Brown a year ago when Notre Dame ended up playing a trio of freshman wide receivers in addition to Brown as their third option behind Davaris Daniels and Jones. Brown had the chance to secure a larger role in 2013 but instead shared time with freshmen Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and James Onwualu.
While Onwualu has since moved to linebacker, Robinson and Fuller are still fighting for playing time at wide receiver and incoming freshmen Justin Brent, an early enrollee who looks more like a senior than a freshman, and Corey Holmes will throw their names into the mix as well. If Brown is not able to lock down a prominent role in fall camp, he will run the risk of falling behind the younger wide receivers and face an uphill battle for playing time over his final two seasons.
Over his first two seasons Brown also did not have the build of an every down wide receiver. He put on some weight in the off-season but still just did not have the look of a wide receiver who would be able to consistently get passed jams at the line of scrimmage during spring practice. In order for Brown to emerge in 2014, he will have had to have maximized all the time he had with Paul Longo in the weight room.
Chris Brown had perhaps his best game in a Notre Dame uniform in the Pinstripe Bowl by catching five passes for 54 yards – passing his previous single game high of three receptions. With Davaris Daniels out of spring practice, Brown saw the bulk of his action with the first team, but with Daniels back and locked into a starting role, that experience doesn’t guarantee a starting gig this fall.
The only other wide receiver on the Notre Dame roster that rivals Brown in the speed department is sophomore Will Fuller. That asset along should give Brown an excellent chance at starting opposite Daniels this fall. That would, however, require Brown to hold off Fuller and that is no certainty at this point after the spring that Fuller had for Notre Dame.
Fuller figures to be Brown’s stiffest competition heading into the fall. Corey Robinson will likely be a mainstay in the offense once the Irish reach the red-zone but will also likely play behind Daniels at other times. CJ Prosise, Amir Carlisle, and Torii Hunter will battle it out in the slot. Justin Brent, on the other hand could be a wild card here. He doesn’t have the speed of either Fuller or Brown, but he is a big and strong and could be a chain mover in the Irish offense.
Given Brown’s edge in experience look for him to at least start off the 2014 season in the starting lineup. Whether or not he stays in the lineup though will be up to him. There will be no shortage of capable wide receivers comping at the bit for playing time if Brown is not able to show more consistency.