The Leap

The Leap

Third-year wideout Chris Brown appears poised for a breakout 2014 campaign.

In 2004, Irish sophomore wide receiver Jeff Samardzija concluded his season with five receptions in Notre Dame's bowl game. The total marked a career-best at the time -- Samardzija had previously secured just 12 catches that fall.

It was a relatively meaningless bowl (loss) for program, but preparations and game night performance gave the player later dubbed, "The Shark," something to build on entering his junior season, a yea in which he finished as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award presented annually to the nation's best receiver.

Nine seasons later, sophomore wide receiver Chris Brown also secured five receptions -- a career-best -- in a relatively meaningless bowl (win) for the Irish. Brown had just 12 career catches to his credit prior, and he, like Samardzija, entered the bowl game in search of something he'd yet to achieve while wearing the blue and gold.

Consistency. At least for four quarters.

Now a junior, Brown believes those first steps taken in Manhattan last December will yield a meaningful leap this fall.

"I guess I can see a more confident player," said Brown when he watches himself on film after practice. "A player that wants to be that rock-force. I used to have problems with consistency. I'm trying to string together consistent plays, to consistent (five-minute practice) periods, to consistent practices, to consecutive games."

According to his head coach, Brown achieved a portion of that through 2014's first seven practices. The junior's ascent, however, started prior to August's first whistle.

"He had a great mentor in T.J. Jones," Brian Kelly said. "He saw the growth of TJ and kind of mirrored that. And then saw an opportunity when DaVaris (Daniels) was not with us, Chris really, by de facto became the veteran of that group. He was put in a leadership position in the spring and really kind of took off. I think the circumstances led to him emerging at that position."

"When you see some light at the top, you take hold. He was clearly this week our best receiver this week, consistently. Route-running, releases. Has to be more consistent catching the football, but clearly he was our best this week."

Better because he's stronger, better because of greater attention to detail, and better because he listened to a veteran that likewise broke through in his third season under the Dome.

"TJ showed me how to be a savvy, composed receiver," said Brown. "I used to be, not nervous, but I would think too much. He told me to slow the game down and really work on my craft as far as, don't just run a 14-yard route at 14 yards, and break. But how to stem (routes), work (defenders). He showed me the way, and I'm trying to follow what he did and hopefully I'll have the same success."

Savvy alone won't produce the results Brown and the Irish covet against Notre Dame's daunting slate. A little added muscle to augment his elite football speed was necessary as well.

"It's definitely helped me a lot with releases," said Brown of added strength and nearly 25 pounds since his enrollment in summer 2012. "Not so much getting off the line because I could shift myself (free) off the line, but in terms of top-of-the-route speed, the in-routes where I can (hand-fight) and make the tough catch. Those are little things I learned from getting stronger."

He learned another valuable skill from Jones: self-assessment.

"I am my biggest critic," Brown offered. "Whether I have a good day or not, I feel like I have to be that much better every single day. It's not about numbers, it's that I expect to be somebody everyone can count on. If I can say that, everything else will fall into place."

Third-Year Steal?

Kelly introduced Chris Brown at a 2012 Signing Day press conference by referring to the then star prep triple-jumper with the following analogy: "I think 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,'" he said.

At both the NFL and college level, steals or so-called sleepers often take time to develop. And Year 3 has proven to be one in which dozens of Kelly-era Irishmen have made their greatest strides.

"My freshman year it was just knowing what I had to do," Brown admitted. "My sophomore year I learned about the whole offense in terms of plays and the concepts. Now, I don't have to think about that anymore. I can just play and I know where I fit in and the timing (of others).

"You feel more savvy, you feel more comfortable, more sound. You don't have to think about what you do, you just do it. That's when you start to become a good player."

And that's when a top-level Kelly receiving target can begin to make his presence felt all over the field -- left, right, slot, and anywhere in between.

"I"m developing as a whole receiver," said Brown of his recent strides. "I can be plugged in almost anywhere on the offense. It gives me the opportunity to be moved around and fit (anywhere)."

He'd even, apparently, be a nice fit on Notre Dame's track team. The former high school triple jumper admitted he's been in communication with program track coach Alan Turner.

Though it's not necessarily a two-way conversation.

"I literally talk to him every other semester," Brown said with a chuckle when asked if his triple-jump past could be part of his future.

"I still got it, I still have a little bit of explosion. Ask (strength and conditioning) Coach (Paul) Longo. I'm getting explosive."

Maybe not literally, but at least figuratively it appears Brown is prepared to make the leap that matters to Irish football fans in 2014.

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