'Big talent' in a small package

As a fourth-year junior, Brandon Brooks came to his key role on Bama's special teams relatively late. But now that he's getting a chance, the kick-return specialist is determined to make the most of it. <br><br>"I always knew it was in me," Brooks said. "I think I've got a lot of good games left in me."

Judged too small to play in the SEC by the Franchione and Price staffs, Brooks was the forgotten man early on. And truthfully the same was true for the first two-thirds of 2003.

But late in the season Mike Shula and his coaches were looking for someone to provide a spark, and they decided to give Brandon Brooks a chance.

"Brandon patiently waited his turn," Shula recalled. "We talked to him a little early that year, and he was frustrated, because he wanted to get in there. But we were playing Shaud Williams, and I wanted to feel comfortable with Brandon."

It wasn't just his height, though in person Brooks is startlingly short. But he also had an unfortunate habit of sometimes bobbling the ball in practice. Of course "ball security" is everything to a football coach, so for most of last year it was simply easier to let the veteran Shaud Williams handle the job.

Shula's advice to Brooks at the time was simple.

"We told him to just keep working hard, and when you get the chance to make the most of it. Go out there and do some things and make the head coach look bad for not putting you in there earlier. That's what he did. Brandon had a great attitude all year. I was proud of him and happy for him."

When he finally got a chance returning punts and kickoffs, Brooks displayed both speed and quickness. He averaged 7.8 yards per punt return on 11 chances, but on a couple of occasions was just a step away from breaking one long.

Bama's "Little Big Man," Brandon Brooks proved to be a dangerous kick-return man last season.

Handling kickoffs with Tyrone Prothro, Brooks totaled 206 yards on six chances, including a scintillating touchdown effort to start the second half against Auburn.

His 96-yard jaunt through the Tiger coverage was the third-longest kickoff return in Crimson Tide history.

Brooks recalled what happened. "The call was for a middle return. I caught the ball and started up-field, and it just opened up. The coverage parted like the Red Sea. Then I knew it was just me and the kicker. I made him miss and headed for the endzone. All I needed was a crease. Once I saw it, I burst through it. Then it was full speed ahead. I didn't look back.

"It was an indescribable feeling. A feeling of relief and happiness at the same time."

"Brandon ignited our football team with that kickoff return," Shula recalled. "That just ignited the whole team."

Buried at halftime 18-2, things looked bleak for Alabama. But Brooks' heroics helped spark his teammates to a second-half comeback that eventually made the game close.

"We were down early, and the offense wasn't getting anything going like we'd planned," Brooks recalled. "At halftime I took it upon myself that I needed to make a play for the team. I wanted to spark the team somehow. Special teams are important. If the offense isn't doing too good, sometimes special teams can get the team going.

"I told myself that I was going to return it for a touchdown if I touched the ball, and that's what I did."

Brooks is easily the fastest player on the team in the 40-yard dash, but his touchdown return covered almost three times that distance.

Brooks waits on the punt during the Auburn game last year. Returning kicks, his diminutive size (5-4, 163) can actually work to his advantage.

"My teammates always tease me," Brooks said. "I'm fast, but I'm only good for 60 meters. After that you get tired. But 60 meters is all you need in football. After that nobody is going to catch you. I made it that final 10 yards on adrenaline. I was pumping. There wasn't anybody going to catch me."

It was a big play. One that solidified Brooks in his job returning kicks for the Tide and established him as a returning playmaker. But he takes little joy in the run, given the outcome of the game.

Brooks commented, "I wish I could have done a lot more for the team. It was a big play, but we fell short. We lost the game, which was most important. We fought to the end, but we came up short."

Along with Brooks and Prothro, redshirt freshman Matt Caddell is also getting reps this spring returning kicks. For the first time in awhile, the Tide fields multiple weapons in its kick-return units.

"I think I can definitely be a game breaker for this team," Brooks said. "And we've also got Tyrone and Matt. Tyrone was back there with me (last year) on kickoffs."

His height is again holding him back, but this spring Brooks is getting plenty of looks at wide receiver as well. "We had a lot of guys that didn't play last year, but I think we'll have guys step up," he said about the position.

Now he's noticed. Now he's appreciated. But Brooks hasn't forgotten the frustration he felt his first two years on campus.

"I was disappointed that I wasn't playing, but I didn't get down on myself," Brooks acknowledged. "I talked with the coaches. They told me to keep working hard and not worry about anything else. That's what I did. When my chance finally came, I took advantage of it. That was my whole mindset. Take advantage of my opportunity."

"My teammates knew that I was capable of playing college football," he continued. "It was just a matter of gaining the confidence of my coaches."

Brooks makes an athletic catch. He's fast, quick and catches the ball well, but his height makes it hard for him to ward off bigger defensive backs, which limits his effectiveness as a receiver.

Like most football players, Brandon has accumulated several nicknames through high school and college. He's just glad he can once again lay claim to all of them.

Brooks explained, "‘Little B' is the main one that everyone calls me. They called me ‘BB' for ‘Big B' in high school, but the guys said they couldn't call me that until I did something. After the Auburn game Dennis Alexander said I earned that nickname back."

Looking back on the 2003 season, Brooks' emergence on special teams is one of the few bright spots.

"Last year was disappointing," he acknowledged. "We learned a lot from the season, though. We lost a lot of close games. Coach Shula listed all the close games we lost and told us to remember the (bad) feeling.

"We don't want to have that feeling again next year."


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