GOSSAGE: Brown finally comes into his own in junior season

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After much anticipation, junior defensive end Andrew Brown is finally living up to the hype for the Cavaliers defense. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Most Virginia football fans are well aware of junior defensive end Andrew Brown’s backstory. They’re probably tired of hearing about how Brown dominated on the high school gridiron, recording 18 sacks and nine forced fumbles his senior year at Oscar Smith High School, which earned him the No. 5 overall ranking in ESPN Recruiting’s Class of 2014. In their minds, Brown hasn’t met his great expectations after two seasons at Virginia. They can’t stand reminders of what could have been.

But this year, in his third season as a member of the Cavalier program, Brown is beginning to pan out — or so it appears. Last week against Connecticut, the Chesapeake, Va. native tallied six tackles — three and a half for a loss — a sack and a fumble recovery.

“The process has been difficult but humbling,” Brown said. “Dealing with the past coaching staff, I couldn’t really produce. Plus, when I first got here I got injured. But ever since then, it just made me realize it’s time to work… Nothing’s going to be given to me just because I was the best out of high school.”

A turf toe injury, which required surgery in the spring of 2014, and a sprained left shoulder he suffered a few months later during fall camp hampered Brown’s development throughout his freshman season. Both injuries caused him to miss a number of practices. When the 6-foot-4, then-305-pound end was finally cleared to suit up, a faster-paced college game exposed his lack of fitness and immaturity. Brown appeared in only six games his freshman season, totaling just four tackles and zero sacks.

Heading into his sophomore season, Brown took it upon himself to transform his body in the weight room, on the track and at the dining hall. By the spring of 2015, he’d dropped to his current weight of roughly 290 pounds. Then-head coach Mike London, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and Cavalier beat writers were all echoing the same message: Brown had progressed into a more effective pass rusher.

Maybe he’d truly turned the corner, but Brown’s statistics his sophomore season would indicate otherwise. Appearing in 10 of Virginia’s 12 games in 2015, he recorded a mere six tackles — three solo — and one sack. The argument could be made, however, that Brown wasn’t given enough in-game snaps to both find a rhythm and prove his effectiveness. Three seniors — defensive tackle David Dean and defensive ends Mike Moore and Kwontie Moore — played a majority of the minutes up front.

Brown was often relegated to the sidelines, where Virginia fans continued to direct their head shakes at No. 9. “How could someone as talented as Brown be so useless at the next level?” they asked, settling on classic Cavalier misfortune as the reason. The real answer is that under London, Brown hadn’t matured, wasn’t fully healthy and didn’t have the free reign necessary for his development. That said, many saw glimpses of the former Oscar Smith standout, playing at times with the same spirit and physicality of his high school days.

“I think everyone saw the potential of and maybe a flash here or there, and I don't think [Brown] played much,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “He's gone from a player that has had very little experience to a player that's emerging within his assignments, within his technique, and understanding not only our system, but situational football. That is a work in progress.”

Brown is certainly still under construction. On occasion, he makes the wrong read or plays “a little bit wild,” in the words of Mendenhall, but Brown does these things far less frequently than before. When his mind is right and he’s executing at the point of attack, Brown has the physical tools — the speed at his size and clearly the strength — to overwhelm an opposing offensive line as he did against Connecticut.

Leading up to Virginia’s home game versus Central Michigan this week, Brown was asked how his team had responded to its 0-3 start this season and the tragic ending on the road last Saturday. The junior defensive end gave a veteran answer.

“You have to take care of what you can control, versus worry about what you can’t control,” Brown said. “So that’s what we are trying to do. And those hurdles that have been happening, [we] can’t worry about it, because it’s set and done. The only thing we can do is play in the moment, worry about the moment and make a better future.”

Those are the words of a heralded high-school prospect who faced unforeseen challenges at the next level. Those are the words of a teammate who has grown tremendously over two seasons at Virginia. Those are the words of Andrew Brown, a player eager to make a new name for himself. Who better than he to answer a question about how the Cavaliers will define their future?

Grant Gossage is a senior associate sports editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.gossage@cavalierdaily.com.

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