Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown implores Notre Dame to get up to speed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

They sat side by side in a private booth Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium, far more preoccupied with the remedy than the cause for Notre Dame’s ambitious national title hopes disintegrating before their eyes.

In the midst of a second-quarter flurry that helped No. 2 Clemson bury the third-ranked Irish, 30-3, in the Cotton Bowl’s College Football Playoff semifinal at Arlington, Texas, the last Irish player to win a Heisman Trophy — Tim Brown, in 1987 — leaned over toward the man sitting next to him.

“You know what this team needs?” said Brown, now 52 and living in his hometown of Dallas. “They need another Rocket Ismail.”

Clemson (14-0), which plays No. 1 Alabama (14-0) Monday night in Santa Clara, Calif., for the national title, held the Irish (12-1) to a season-low 248 total yards.

The original Rocket, born Raghib Ismail, is the Notre Dame player who has come the closest to winning a Heisman since Brown won the school’s seventh, falling short by 305 voting points in his junior year and final college season (1990) to BYU junior quarterback Ty Detmer (linebacker Manti Te’o was 325 points behind Johnny Manziel in 2012).

Ismail, 49 and living in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, also happened to be the man taking in Brown’s suggestion in the booth, which made him smile as well as wholeheartedly agree.

“We both think Notre Dame can and will win another national championship, say, in the next 10 years,” Brown said. “I put out a little tweet (on Twitter): ‘Hey Notre Dame, keep building. Let’s do it with a little speed. Hint. Hint.’

“Because we’ve got to get faster. I love the big guys we have, (Chase) Claypool and (Miles) Boykin. I get it, how incredible they are.

“I’ve been on the sidelines for games, and they look like defensive ends. They’re big, physical guys, but at the same time, you need a guy who can catch a five-yard pass and turned it into a 50-yard touchdown.

“The last time we won a national championship (1988) we had a guy we call ‘Rocket,’ who was returning punts and kicks for us and doing incredible things in our offense. A guy like that puts the fear of God in you. But we don’t have a guy like that at this particular point, and we’ve got to find him.”

The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Boykin, the 6-4, 227-pound Claypool and the nine other members of ND’s 2018 receiving corps are all eligible to return for 2019. The Irish signed a pair of three-star receiver prospects last month — 6-foot, 185-pound Kendall Abdur-Rahman from Edwardsville, Ill., and 6-3, 190-pound Cam Hart from Olney, Md.

The three purported fastest receivers on the Irish roster all just finished their freshman seasons — Braden Lenzy (5-11, 170), Lawrence Keys III (5-11, 170) and Joe Wilkins Jr. (6-2, 185). None of them had a catch in 2018. In fact, Wilkins is the only one of the three who saw the field in a game, with cameos against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.

“You don’t have to play just juniors and seniors,” Brown said. “You can play some of these freshmen. You don’t have to play them every down, but put them in there for a couple of plays and let people see you have some talent that can run by some of these guys.”

Brown, a 2015 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, still looks like he can run by people. So does Rocket, whose son, Raghib Ismail Jr., caught 24 passes for 267 yards and two TDs as a junior receiver on Wyoming’s football team in 2018.

Among Brown’s football-related endeavors these days is a longtime relationship with Panini America, a company that specializes in licensed sports and entertainment collectibles.

Panini recently announced an exclusive multi-year trading card deal with Notre Dame for not just football, but for all Irish sports.

“I’ve worked with Panini for years with my NFL products,” Brown said. “I think this is going to be incredible. These products are going to be available April 1. You can go to icollectpanini.com or you can go to Target or Walmart stores to pick up these incredible products. I’m looking forward to it.”

Brown is also looking forward to possibly expanding an informal consulting role with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, the team that drafted him sixth in 1988 when the franchise was located in Los Angeles.

“(Coach) Jon (Gruden) and I are going to talk about that,” Brown said, “but it would still be something informal. It certainly wouldn’t be a day-to-day deal.”

The closest Brown has come to actually coaching was when former Irish head coach Charlie Weis asked Brown to be a football operations director for the Irish shortly after Brown retired from football 14 years ago.

“It was something I thought about doing, because we were going to do something special with it,” Brown said. “I wasn’t going to have to be there every day — only a couple of days a week.

“They wanted me around to help recruiting, but that didn’t work out. Coaching full time in college is pretty tough stuff, and I just don’t know if I could have handled that.”

So he’ll settle for armchair coaching — and helping to recruit for the Irish within whatever the NCAA rulebook allows.

“I know (ND running backs coach) Autry Denson told me the other day that there are some guys here in Dallas that they certainly are looking at,” Brown said. “So he’s going to be back. If I can be a part of that somehow, I’d certainly help Notre Dame any way I can.”

Thirty-one seasons ago, Brown’s own college career ended with a one-sided loss in the Cotton Bowl, 35-10 to Texas A&M. The Irish then went on to win their next 23 games straight, inclusive of the 1988 national championship, before Miami (Fla.) ended the streak in the final regular-season game of 1989.

“I think if we get back to the playoff again — whether that’s next year or further out in the future — we’ve got to be better,” Brown said. “We’ve got to be sharper early on.

“If you’re going to compete with a team like that, you have to, in some kind of way, strike some fear in them and let them know this is going to be a four-quarter game. And the best way to do that? Get faster.”

Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Tim Brown says the Irish need more speed to compete in the College Football Playoff.