Work ethic helps nudge Justin Brent into WR conversation at Notre Dame

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

A few years ago, then-Speedway (Ind.) High School football coach Denny Pelley and star wide receiver Justin Brent were doing the camp circuit. There was a trip to Illinois for a seven-on-seven event. The next weekend included a stop at Notre Dame, followed by a camp at Ohio State the next day.

During the OSU visit, campers were given time to break for lunch, but that wasn’t part of Brent’s itinerary. Instead, he stayed on the field to catch passes, and while he was doing so, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer happened past. After 45 minutes of watching Brent, Meyer told him the school was interested.

Brent’s recruitment ended a week later when he offered a verbal pledge to Notre Dame, but the story reaffirmed what Pelley had known for a few years.

“He’s going to outwork people,” said Pelley, who retired after last season. “He’s going to get noticed because he does that.”

Fast-forward a few years following Brent’s first fall practice as a member of the Irish. While certain hand-picked members of the squad conducted on-field interviews, the field was largely void of activity.

Not Brent. With a manager feeding balls into a machine, the freshman spent close to a half-hour working overtime. That work ethic went a long way toward Brent earning a reserve spot on Notre Dame’s first depth chart of the season.

“You can’t get into the two-deep if you’re lazy, you can’t get into the two-deep if you don’t have a work ethic. You can’t get into the two-deep if you don’t care, right?” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He’s got all that.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Brent is listed as the backup to Corey Robinson at the outside receiver spot for Saturday’s season opener against Rice. Robinson suffered a broken thumb last week and had a pin inserted on Friday, but Kelly said he expects the sophomore to play.

The guy projected to start at the spot, senior DaVaris Daniels, is one of the four players sitting out of practice and games as the University conducts an academic fraud investigation. Throw in a groin injury to sophomore Torii Hunter Jr., who is ahead of schedule in his recovery, and the possibility exists that Brent’s time on the two-deep could be temporary.

“You know, I think he’s got some physical traits, probably more than that he’s ready,” Kelly said. “I think Torii Hunter will probably take that spot from him when he’s back. He’s keeping that seat warm for him right now, but he’s got physical traits.

“You can put him in the game, and even though he doesn’t have full knowledge of all the intricacies of being a receiver yet, he’s learning. Because of his skill set and his size, he’s not going to hurt you out there. But he’s got a ways to go. He’s a freshman, you know? He’s bigger, he’s a physical presence, but I would say him and Corey Holmes are both kids that are going to be dynamite players for us, it’s just too early to have them out there, both of them.”

According to Pelley, Brent isn’t the type to pout over a lack of playing time. Sure, Brent would love to be on the field for every play, but focusing on controlling what he can is the attitude the freshman brings to practice.

“He’s just putting his time in trying to get better. That’s his attitude. He doesn’t expect anything, he doesn’t want anything. He just wants to get better,” Pelley said. “That’s just kind of his M.O.; that’s kind of what he does.”

What Brent has done is make sacrifices for his future. He gave up his senior season of basketball so he could get a jump on spring practice at ND. Pelley got involved when Brent first wanted to graduate early, telling school officials — who require that seniors take a year of government class — that Brent would be better off studying at ND than he would at Speedway.

Pelley saw Brent’s team-first attitude prior to last season when, with the Sparkplugs expected to struggle in the passing game, one of the premier players in the state came to the coach and said he’d be willing to play running back.

“No. 1, it takes a special kid to do that. And No. 2, he came to me,” Pelley said. “That’s where that came from. He’s a very intuitive kid. He understands what’s going on. He really does. I’ll give him credit on that one. Not many people would do that.”

Like the stories of Brent eschewing lunch and spending extra time post-practice, Pelley remembered a kid who would still be working while the coaches were cleaning up after practice. He remembers a kid who would politely decline the pizza and ribs Pellley would provide during team-bonding sessions, telling the coach that he had to watch what he ate.

“He wants to get better. He feels like if he’s not doing something, somebody else is getting better,” Pelley said. “He didn’t want that to be the case.”

Notre Dame freshman wide receiver Justin Brent has stood up to the challenges thrown his way. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)
Notre Dame freshman wide receiver Justin Brent has stood up to the challenges thrown his way. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

•Notre Dame is 99-20-5 (.818) in home openers, including 66-16-2 (.798) at Notre Dame Stadium.

•In the 104 seasons in which ND won its opener, the Irish went on to post a winning record 95 times.

•Saturday’s meeting between Notre Dame and Rice is one of seven matchups nationally this weekend that features a pair of teams that both won at least nine games last season.

•Notre Dame is 4-0 all-time in August. Previous wins came against Virginia (1989), Kansas (1999), Maryland (2002) and Temple (2013).

•Notre Dame lost a fumble just four times in 2013, equaling Bowling Green, Utah, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin for the fewest in the nation.

•Notre Dame’s running backs have lost three or fewer fumbles in each of the last four years. Irish running backs have lost just 10 fumbles since the start of 2010.

•Since the start of 2011, Notre Dame has allowed just 25 rushing touchdowns. Only Alabama (21) has allowed fewer.

•Notre Dame failed to score first in six consecutive season openers from 2003-08. ND has captured its last 15 season openers when scoring first.

•Among Irish coaches in season openers, Knute Rockne went 13-0, Ara Parseghian 11-0, Lou Holtz 9-2, Frank Leahy 9-0-2 and Jesse Harper 5-0. Current Irish coach Brian Kelly enters Saturday’s opener with a 3-1 mark.

•Notre Dame is 4-0 all-time against Rice. The Irish have outscored the Owls 147-16.

•The only touchdown Notre Dame has allowed in the series came in 1988.

•Notre Dame and Rice first met on Nov. 27, 1915, in Houston. ND’s 55-2 victory came just two days after the Irish had defeated Texas 36-7 in Austin.

•In 1974, Notre Dame needed a two-yard TD run by Wayne Bullock with 3:08 to play to subdue the Owls, 10-3.

•Notre Dame is opening against a team called the Owls for the second consecutive season, last season’s opener coming against Temple. The last time ND opened a season with consecutive seasons against different opponents that had the same nickname was in 2003-04 when it opened against Washington State and BYU, both of which are nicknamed the Cougars.

•Notre Dame has never played a game on Aug. 30.