Confident Chris Brown spreading aplomb to his Notre Dame teammates

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —The reach of who Chris Brown has become as a Notre Dame football player will likely show itself in the Irish defensive backfield, of all places, Saturday night at Stanford.

In the days leading up to the West Coast showdown that will define CFP No. 6 and AP fourth-ranked Notre Dame (10-1), the Irish senior wide receiver took time to lend a hand to Nick Coleman, Nick Watkins and Devin Butler.

They’re the trio that in some combination is responsible for replacing ND’s latest seemingly irreplaceable part to fall out of the lineup, senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, himself a few days removed from surgery to stabilize a fractured tibia in his right leg.

Saturday night in Palo Alto against CFP No. 9 Stanford (9-2), they’ll have to lend run support to help slow the nation’s No. 4 rusher in sophomore Christian McCaffrey, while defending Kevin Hogan, the QB with the best pass-efficiency ranking (7th) the Irish have seen all season.

“I talk to them about all the ins and outs of what I’m thinking,” Brown, ND’s second-leading receiver, said Wednesday after practice. “I’m just trying to build that confidence. Confidence will move mountains.”

He has similar conversations with ND freshman tight end Alizé Jones, still working through the college growth curve.

And he even recently reassured junior Will Fuller, ND’s leading receiver and a player who got to the semifinalist stage for both the Biletnikoff and Maxwell awards, after Fuller had some notable drops in last Saturday’s 19-16 scare from Boston College.

“Games like that happen — they happen to the best of pros, anybody,” Brown said. “And I just feel like he’s really been on the grind (since then). He’s playing motivated, so it’s a scary sight.”

Brown talked confidence in the mirror too, which is the driving factor in how he’s turned a 2014 time share with junior Corey Robinson into something closer to a monopoly.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder already has surpassed his previous career highs in receptions (43 and just seven behind Fuller), receiving yards (555) and touchdown catches (3). He’s coming off the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, against the nation’s No. 1 defense, no less.

That included a 12-yard TD catch late in the third quarter that was slightly underthrown, but Brown reached over and plucked it away from BC defensive back John Johnson, who earlier in the game picked off an underthrown end zone pass from DeShone Kizer intended for Jones.

“I have faith in this team and what we do,” Brown said. “I’m just putting my 100 percent trust in my preparation.”

That preparation, almost maniacal in its intensity and precision, goes hand in hand with Brown’s confidence boost.

And it doesn’t just show up in receptions. Brown’s downfield block Nov. 14 against Wake Forest helped spring freshman running back Josh Adams for a 98-yard TD run, now the longest play from scrimmage in school history.

Brown always had the raw material. ND head coach Brian Kelly’s charge was to develop an elite track and field star, but a three-star football prospect whom Rivals.com rated behind 80 other receivers in the 2012 class, into a consistent football deep threat and more.

Brown was a national-caliber triple jumper at Hanahan (S.C.) High School, setting the state triple jump record as a junior while also winning the long jump and finishing second in the 200-meter dash.

The following spring, he scored 34 points in the state meet by himself, winning the triple jump and posting runner-up finishes in the high jump, 100 and 200.

Former ND track coach Joe Piane was hoping Brown would double up and become a two-sport Irish star, but Brown eventually pushed away one passion for another.

“I really don’t regret anything,” Brown said. “Obviously, you miss a sport that you’re really good at. I guess I wish there was a way to continue with it, but I felt like I was able to get good football work in, and ultimately that’s where my passion was and where I tried to pursue the next level.

“So in terms of getting better for football, I feel like that time was spent well.”

Brown was way more decoy than dominant that freshman year as ND was making its run to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. He had just two catches all season, but the 50-yarder from Everett Golson at Oklahoma was one of the key offensive plays in a season in which the defense produced most of the headlines.

That catch, though, haunted Brown as he moved into his sophomore year. It raised the expectations around him, but the consistency and confidence didn’t come along for the ride.

Perhaps he should have redshirted that freshman season, given how raw he was as a receiver?

“Everything happens for a reason,” Brown said. “Whether it was for two catches, I feel like it paid dividends. I got pretty much all my mistakes out the first two years. I couldn’t have played any worse in those first two years, so it helped me move forward in my growth as a football player.”

He figures to be a central piece in the Irish offensive game plan Saturday night, given that Stanford’s 43rd-ranked defense, three spots below ND’s, is more susceptible to the pass.

That’s the path Washington State took in its near-upset of the Cardinal on Halloween, foiled by a missed field goal late. Northwestern and Oregon, the two teams to actually beat Stanford this season, both coaxed turnovers and turned in strong running efforts to pull those upsets.

“It’s a big game, but at the same time your preparation can’t change,” Brown said. “You’ve just got to continue your same preparation and be the same player you’ve been all year.

“Stanford always plays us tough. So we’re going to get their best.

“And they’re going to get ours.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Brown (rear) reaches over the head of Boston College defensive back John Johnson (9) as he makes a touchdown catch last Saturday against Boston College. (AP Photo/CHARLES KRUPA)