Notre Dame football recruiting: Brent now impressing from the backfield

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS - Denny Pelley struggles to express the degree of his frustration.

Gifted with one of the top-ranked wide receivers in the country, the head coach at Class 2-A Speedway High School can’t figure out how to let Justin Brent do what he does best: catch the football.

He tried to develop a quarterback with an arm to throw to the Notre Dame-bound senior wideout in the offseason but came up empty. So Pelley and his staff decided to put his prolific pass catcher in the backfield.

“You have no idea how frustrating it is. You have no idea,” Pelley said after a 41-20 loss to Cardinal Ritter on Friday night at Marian University. “We worked diligently this week on (throwing to Brent). In 2-A football, you get what you get. We have a kid at quarterback that does a great job controlling the game and gives us the best chance to win. Playing Justin at tailback gives us our best chance to win.”

The results have varied. Four games to start the season have been split with two wins and two losses despite Brent making an impact in multiple ways. He has averaged nearly 146 yards rushing per game, rushed for seven touchdowns and scored twice on special teams. He spends the rest of his time playing safety for the Sparkplugs. He only comes off the field for Speedway field goals, kickoffs and punts.

Friday night featured the best and worst of the Speedway offense for Brent this season. He racked up 192 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, but caught just one ball, a shovel pass, for no gain. He was targeted three more times, with two landing incomplete, and one landing in the hands of a Ritter defender.

With such few chances to catch the ball, any incompletion irks Brent.

“I had one I felt I should have caught,” Brent said. “I got hit pretty hard by two people in my lower body. But where I'm going, I have to catch that."

Adapting to change

Before switching to running back, Justin Brent didn’t have to rely on so many teammates. All he really needed was a quarterback to get him the ball.

Now lining up in the backfield with the entire defense in front of him, Brent’s learning how to manage working with an entire unit. It’s been his biggest adjustment through four games.

“You have to know that you have to rely on your teammates,” Brent said. “It's not a bad thing because everybody has to be held accountable. If one person messes up the whole play can be screwed up. We’re getting better."

A lot of time has been spent by Brent improving his wide receiver skills, which he’s trying to tweak to become a better running back. Performances at national summer camps this summer swayed many recruiting pundits to put him in the top 15 among wide receiver prospects nationally. He spends extra time keeping those skills sharp.

Some of those skills have been passed down from mentor Tandon Doss, a graduate of Ben Davis High School and wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens. The two met through an Indianapolis trainer and have been trading notes since. Doss, who played collegiately at Indiana, made time to take Brent under his wing.

“From day one, you could see the potential he had. He basically came in as a beast,” Doss said in a phone interview from Baltimore. “Being that young and being able to do some of the things he was able to do at that time, I knew right away that he could be a special player. I knew I had some lessons I could give him.”

Some of those lessons have been put on the shelf while Brent plays running back, but reminders of hard work, dedication and humility are constantly helpful.

“He's lived up to the expectations and keeps grinding and working at it,” Doss said. “No matter how good he gets, he's always working at something. He's a great player. I'm proud of him and hopefully he can continue that work ethic.”

The Ravens cut Doss before the season started, but re-signed him following an injury to wide receiver Jacoby Jones in week one. The short hiatus from the NFL allowed Doss to watch Brent play a game in person for the first time on Sept. 6. Brent rewarded Doss with 126 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, and a kick return touchdown against Beech Grove.

"It's awesome for him to come see me play,” Brent said. “We train together in the offseason, and usually he's always gone. He had a chance to come see me, and I was excited. He's proud of me. Now I get to watch him on Sundays."

While finishing his senior season, Brent has kept an eye on being able to play on Saturdays next fall. He works out almost daily, which will pay dividends at Notre Dame, but also serves him well with the increased pounding he takes as a running back. He has sculpted his 6-foot-1, 195-pound body into a dominating force at the high school level.

“That's a credit to him,” Pelley said. “You don't paint that on somebody. There's nothing phony about him. He plays his butt off."

Leading the way

On nights like Friday, Pelley calls it the Justin Brent Show. In order to beat defending state runner-up Cardinal Ritter, the Speedway team needed its star to lead the way.

For most of one half, he did so successfully. Brent responded to the first three Ritter touchdowns with scores of his own.

Trailing 7-0, Brent helped tie the game on an eight-yard touchdown run. He took a toss to the right side, spun off a defender and dove into the end zone for six points. He tallied 33 rushing yards on the drive.

After Ritter moved ahead 14-7, Brent retreated for the ensuing kickoff with only a slim hope that the ball would be kicked his way. For some reason, Ritter hit it right to him. Brent caught the kick at the 10-yard line, split a pair of defenders at the 30, and raced down the right sideline for another touchdown to tie the game.

His final touchdown came out of the backfield again. On the first play from scrimmage following Ritter’s 21-14 lead, Brent sprinted for an 80-yard touchdown run. He weaved through the Ritter defensive front on a counter play to the right side and outran a trio of defenders in the secondary.

The individual effort wasn’t enough. Ritter prevented any big plays from Brent in the second half and held the Sparkplugs scoreless the rest of the game.

"I got some good blocks tonight that helped me take some plays a long ways,” Brent said, “but at the end of the day it's not about individual stuff. It's about the team. We're going to keep battling until we can get some wins.”

The loss to Ritter marked the third straight for Speedway against the regional rival in a little more than a year. The Raiders ended Brent’s junior season in the sectional, and the two teams will likely meet again this postseason.

“I'm definitely impressed with the way we came out,” Brent said. “When sectional time comes around we'll get another shot at them and hopefully next time we get the win."

Brent was unable to secure a victory with Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin watching from the sidelines. Communication between Brent and the Irish coaching staff remains constant, and Brent plans to be in town on Saturday for the Michigan State game.

“I'm just proud of all the support I get from them,” Brent said. “I can't wait to get there, but I have to worry about the now. We still have a chance to do something special this year. It's just all about coming together at the right time.”

Pelly and Brent hope to push the Speedway team through the season despite its shortcomings.

“He's selfless and that's good because he's one of the best receivers in the area. We just can't get him the ball right now,” Pelley said. “It's pretty evident. He does what he's trying to do to help us. He's become a leader. His work ethic is great. I wouldn't trade him for anybody.”

Justin Brent/Photo provided