Friday, August 10, 2007

The Name's Brown...Corwin Brown

Last December, when seemingly everybody had an opinion regarding what to do with Notre Dame's defense and why it had run in place/retreated for two seasons under Rick Minter, one intriguing blog post caught my eye. The post in question claimed, citing "insider" sources that, far from being a simplistic, bare-bones, easy to outsmart style, Minter's coaching directives were actually far too complex. The defensive schemes relied too much on checks and counterchecks at the line, forcing all 11 ND players into a mad scramble on almost every down to get on the same page. The results weren't pretty - a wide-open Mario Manningham, Dwayne Jarrett, Hakim Nicks, & Selwyn Lymon among them. 

Minter was out, again according to the "insiders", as early as the day after ND's season-ending 44-24 loss to USC. True or not, the writing was on the wall by the time JaMarcus Russell finished wiping the SuperDome confetti with ND's secondary after the Sugar Bowl. News soon leaked that Minter's contract would not be renewed. All across the internet, the Irish fan's wish list was long and cluttered with sexy names - UCLA's DeWayne Walker, a Pete Carroll crony who turned one of the worst defensive units into an elite squad that bumfuzzled ND and USC (and would've had victories in both games if not for Karl Dorrell being Karl Dorrell)? He was contacted, but passed on the idea of moving on to a fifth job in seven years. USC's linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr.? However his name started popping up, it wasn't on account of anything serious. Romeo Crennel, riding the hot seat in Cleveland and Weis' old buddy from New England? Dream on. The new defensive coordinator turned out to be...

A 37-year old NFL position coach named Corwin Brown.

Most of ND Nation had the same generic reaction: who's Corwin Brown? The bio began to trickle out shortly after. Brown was:
  • A former Michigan defensive back ('89-'92; shortly after he was hired, intrepid fans began to notice that he was the guy who missed the first tackle on Reggie Brooks' spectacular, coma-inducing touchdown run during the 1992 ND-UM contest)
  • A prototypical journeyman across 8 seasons in the NFL, used mainly as a special teams contributor (and a very good one, according to Weis, who coached him during his first stint with the Patriots under Parcells) and a backup in various secondaries. His biggest moment as an NFL safety came in his final season when, as a member of the Lions, he absolutely LIT UP Keyshawn Johnson (see above photo)
  • A disciple of the Belichick/Parcells coaching tree, with stops as Al Groh's special teams coach for the UVA and three years as defensive backs coach for the New York Jets before accepting Weis' offer to come to Notre Dame
It was this last point that first got Notre Dame fans excited (that, and the prospect of Tom Zbikowski being taught how to hit SC players the way Brown did in that October 2000 Sunday Night Football game). Brown's presence as a pupil of the Patriots and Weis' comments that he'd tried to hire Brown once before in 2005 surely meant that the 3-4 defense was coming to South Bend. After two years of futile exhaustion under Rick Minter, two years where Weis admittedly pulled back from getting too involved with the defense due to the fact that he simply didn't understand it (and, apparently, neither did the players), Weis was finally installing one of his own.
Weis: I won't have to concern myself with knowing what we're doing, because I know what we'll be doing. Because it's a system that I was grown up in as I started on the defensive side of the ball my first year. And all I know is if I can get recommendations, ringing recommendations with one name from Parcells and Belichick and Crennel and Groh and they all give you the same person, then I must be on the right track.
Guess that settles that. Weis went on to clarify throughout the spring that he and Brown were crafting a defense based more around 3-4 "personnel" than an actual 3-4. Another collective "Huh?" rose from the crowd of message board pundits. Take it away, Coach:
Weis: 34 personnel means you're playing with three defensive linemen and you're playing with four linebackers. A 34 defense means you're playing with a nose tackle on the center, you're playing with two defensive ends on the tackles, you're playing with two inside linebackers on the guards, and you're playing with two outside linebackers either on tight end or in space. That's what a 34 defense is. You can count on one hand the number of teams that play that as the main part of their defense. What they do is they play 34 personnel. Why do you do that? To get more athleticism on the field.
Brown, a man of few words, echoed the sentiment over and over again in his public comments. The defense would be about fundamentals, about discipline, about tenacity. Less thinking, more 'getting after it'. Less concern about mapping out strategy and more concern with the fundamentals of how to hit, how to tackle, how to play ball "my way".

The results won't even begin to show until we can look at a box score for September 1st opener against Georgia Tech. There's simply no way to gauge what this defense is going to do until you see it on the field - however, one gets a strange conviction that for the first time in 3 seasons as Fighting Irish head coach, Weis and his defensive coordinator are on precisely the same page.

Yet Brown didn't bother to wait until tangible results were in the bag to make impressions. His biggest up to now is without question happening on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame has roped in many of the top defensive names on the national board  - LBs Darius Fleming and Steve Filer (both from Chicago), S Dan McCarthy, DT Omar Hunter, LB Anthony McDonald (son of USC alum Mike), DT Brandon Newman, ILB David Posluszny, and CBs Robert Blanton, &  Jamoris Slaughter are poised to form what will be hands down Notre Dame's best defensive recruiting class in a decade, and they could yet be joined by other highly touted players like CB Jeremy Brown and DE Kapron Lewis-Moore. Even more important is Brown's immediate flag-planting in Notre Dame's backyard of Chicago - Filer, Fleming, and DT recruit Sean Cwynar are the consensus 1-2-3 prospects out of the area, and ND had them all locked up before the end of summer - with all of them citing their relationship with Brown and his tireless sales pitch on behalf of ND as the major factor in their decision.

And, in another stunning first (thank you Tyrone Willingham), Weis and Brown will be working with actual, legitimate depth this year as talented players battle their way onto the field throughout the duration of camp. Linebacker offers the most intriguing combinations of personnel, as Maurice Crum figures to be the only one with one of the four spots nailed down. Seniors Joe Brockington & Anthony Vernaglia lead the pack fighting for the remaining three, along with juniors Steve Quinn, Scott Smith, and Kevin Washington, plus sophomores Toryan Smith, John Ryan, & Morrice Richardson. Freshman Kerry Neal, Brian Smith, Aaron Nagel, and maybe even Steve Paskorz will all be in there fighting as well, but their likely destination is special teams if not redshirts.

Though he isn't a quote gold-mine for the media, Brown could very well be the Crennel clone that Weis was looking for - a hard-nosed drill sergeant that's going to coach the kids up and then turn 'em loose on the field. Prepare for a new look Notre Dame defense in the fall, and not just because of the re-aligned positional chart; there's a new sheriff in town, and he walks tall and delivers bone-rattling hits on Keyshawn "Gimme the Damn Ball" Johnson.

Weis went deep into his rolodex for advice from Parcells, Crennel, and Belichick. 
They all came back with one name: Corwin Brown.

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