As a very raw rookie receiver in 2012, Chris Brown caught a grand total of two passes, although one of those receptions – a 50-yarder at Oklahoma – propelled Notre Dame to the go-ahead score in the momentous road victory.
As a sophomore in 2013, Brown surpassed his rookie season production in the first game when he caught three passes for 57 yards, and went on to finish with 15 grabs, including a five-catch performance in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers.
Last season, Brown jumped all the way up to 39 receptions, 35 of which came in the final 10 games. His 3rd-and-10 snag, followed by a pass interference penalty, were significant plays in what appeared to be the game-tying or game-winning drive against Louisville until the kicking game failed.
It seems like just the other day that Chris Brown first stepped on campus and picked up the moniker “Breezy” from his teammates for his ability to “take the top off” an opposing secondary’s deep coverage.
Now he’s in his last hurrah with the Irish, and after finishing third on the team in receptions – one behind Corey Robinson – Notre Dame’s W (boundary) receiver believes he’s positioning himself for a standout senior sendoff.
“I’m feeling really good as far as where the spring is going and where my weight is,” said the 6-foot-1 ½, 195-pounder from Hanahan, S.C. “I’m feeling really explosive.”
By catching 54.1 percent of the passes targeted to him, Brown made a marked improvement over his sophomore season. All seven of his third-down catches went for first downs, and only Fuller (8) drew more pass interference penalties that Brown (5).
Meanwhile, Brown’s performance as a perimeter blocker stood out as well. He became not only a willing blocker on the edge, but a tenacious and consistent one as well.
“I’ve always taken pride in my blocking,” Brown said. “Most of the plays you get are blocking plays. I felt like showing the will to block was important. We work on it in every single practice, and we take pride in controlling the perimeter.”
Brown cites effort and balance as the keys to being an effective blocker from the wide receiver position.
“You’ve got to know the situation and you’ve got to know where the ball is,” Brown said. “It all starts with understanding the offense. You can’t be blocking for an outside run on an inside run.”
To get to the next level, receivers coach Mike Denbrock and head coach Brian Kelly still want to see a more consistent performance from Brown when it comes to route running.
“Chris Brown has been good,” Kelly cautiously praised. “He needs to continue to work on the fundamentals, getting in and out of his break, things of that nature.”
Denbrock, who’s in charge of making sure the desired end result is reached by being a stickler for technique, knows exactly where Brown goes wrong when he lags a bit from cut to acceleration.
“Some of it is footwork, but mainly, it’s a body-position thing,” Denbrock said.
“He gets himself a little out of whack sometimes, and at the top of the route, when you’re running full speed into it, a lot of guys have a tendency to let their shoulders go up and let their butt go underneath them, so they kind of sit into the route.”
Brown half-jokingly says that when you run as fast as he does, getting in and out of a break is a bit more difficult.
“That’s a positive way to look at it,” Denbrock laughed.
“I feel like this spring I’ve built upon last season and have gotten better at it,” Brown said. “It’s (Kelly) just wanting me to be the best player I can be, and if that all works accordingly, I should be a very good player.”
Brown makes the bold proclamation that from top to bottom, the Irish have the best receiving corps in the country. Such a difficult-to-quantify title is debatable. But considering the Irish have all five of the top pass-catching wideouts from a year ago, next-in-line sophomores Justin Brent and Corey Holmes, plus four incoming freshmen, there aren’t too many programs that are in position to make the claim, particularly when Everett Golson is winging it.
“I said the same thing last year and it’s crazy to think that we have everyone back, plus the experience,” Brown said. “To claim you’re the best wide receiver group in the country, we have to compete every single day, and I think we’re doing a good job of that.”
Brown feels strongly that he’s become more than just a speed guy.
“I feel like I’m really consistent on third down,” Brown said. “In addition to being able to blow the top off, I feel like my ability to get in and out of breaks has improved so much. Just being able to consistently do that now brings another element to it.”
Another area Brown seeks improvement is getting in the end zone. Of his 56 career grabs, two have gone for touchdowns – a 15-yarder from Tommy Rees against Air Force in 2013, and a critical 17-yard score with 3:06 left in the first half of Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory over Stanford.
“I started slowly, but I gradually grew stronger as the season moved on,” said Brown, who will share the W position with Robinson. “I felt like I was somebody our offense could depend on. I had a solid year. I expect to build on what I did last year and be better.
“If they can depend on me day-in and day-out, I’m going to get the ball regardless. The stats will be there.”
So, too, will Notre Dame’s reliance on a guy who has become more than just a receiver that runs really fast.