Compared to what he’s faced away from the football field, the challenge Gary Brown faces at the University of Wisconsin is easy.
Brown was hired late last month as the new running backs coach. His addition was announced by UW four days before the team opened spring practices, meaning he had little time to learn about his players or get to know his new colleagues on the coaching staff before they were taking the field for an important spring session for the offense.
The timing of his hire forces him to play catch-up for now, but Brown is conquering a more important battle in the midst of his latest career move. Brown is fighting cancer for the second time in his life, this bout against a tumor near the bile duct and head of his pancreas, according to a report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“When you’re sitting alone by yourself and you’re thinking about what’s next, you really think about the things that could be taken away,” Brown said on a Zoom call Monday, his first meeting with reporters since being hired.
“Not only football, but your family and your friends and all these things. It’s going to do one of two things to you — it’s either going to eat you up and you’re just going to fold up and you’re just going to go in a corner and die, or you’re going to fight. And my parents raised me to fight, so that was my only answer to quote unquote ‘bad news’ is to fight and to go out and make sure that you do whatever you need to do to try to be the best you can be. Being the best I could be was trying to fight this disease.”
Brown defeated colon and liver cancer about a decade ago, so he knew the rigors of treatment as he learned of his most recent diagnosis. He said he feels great and is sticking to the diet and medicine regimen his doctors prescribe.
“Totally feeling like I’m going to be here for another, hopefully 40-50 years, live to be 100, and we’ll be good to go,” he said.
Brown didn’t coach in 2020 as he received treatment, but he comes to the Badgers with 19 seasons of NFL experience — eight as a player and 11 as a coach. The last seven years of his coaching career were with the Dallas Cowboys, where he coached the leading rusher in the NFL three times, DeMarco Murray (2014) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016, ’18).
UW running backs are getting a taste of how Brown coached those pro stars.
“His perspective is he’s coaching at the professional level, that’s kind of the only way he knows how to coach,” said junior Isaac Guerendo. “That’s kind of how he informed us on that. So being able to think professionally as a running back has been a great impact.”
Senior fullback John Chenal said Brown focuses on explaining why the backs perform specific assignments on a play and how they impact the offense as a whole, a similar tact used by UW coach Paul Chryst with the quarterbacks.
“He’s explaining kind of the fundamentals and the reasoning behind everything,” Chenal said. “It just helps us get a better understanding of the whole scheme we’re trying to work at here. With the young running backs, once we get the whole scheme down and understand the why or the reasoning for each thing that we do, it’ll just give us a great advantage.”
Chryst told reporters last month that former UW center Travis Frederick recommended Brown as a replacement for John Settle, who took the running backs coach job at Kentucky. Brown was on the sideline for Frederick’s career with the Cowboys. Once Chryst and Brown talked, the fit for the role was evident.
Brown put it simply when asked about why the spot on UW’s staff was attractive: “What other place would a running back coach want to be than where they’re going to run the rock?”
Brown played at Penn State and coached six seasons in college before his NFL stint. Returning to the college ranks, learning a new scheme and new players were all tasks that encouraged Brown.
“I was in Dallas for seven straight seasons so the offseason was kind of ... I don’t want to say easy, but I knew the offense, I knew the players,” he said. “We were drafting guys, going to combine, it was kind of like I was on autopilot in Dallas for seven years.
“So in this situation — where I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know the offense, I didn’t know anything — was exciting to me. Because now I’m back into the student mode. And now I’m learning and I’m trying to get the terminology down and trying to learn the players and all their different little ins and outs on how they do things and the coaches and all that. It’s been very exciting. Listen, I’m not even close to where I need to be, but I’m going in the right direction.”
Brown said twice during his Zoom call he’s appreciative of the opportunity the Badgers gave him. In turn, Chryst has said he’s excited for what Brown can do for UW’s backs and the new ideas he’ll bring the staff.
After his life and coaching career were detoured by cancer, Brown said he’s learned to cherish each day he’s doing what he loves.
“It really changed me in a way of realizing that every day is a gift, that what we do is special,” he said. “What I do is special, whether it’s in the NFL or college or wherever, every day is a gift and every day is special. So I think in that regard, it’s helped me understand that when I step into the building, I have to give it my best 100%, because none of this is promised. Nothing’s guaranteed. (You’ve) just got to go out and take the blessings that you have and make the most of them.”
Five things to watch on Wisconsin's offense as spring football starts
Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz struggled to find consistent rhythm after a record-setting performance in his starting debut. Mertz completed just under 57% of his passes, threw four touchdowns and five interceptions the rest of the season after completing 20 of 21 passes against Illinois, tying a program record with five touchdowns.
Cutting down on turnovers — Mertz also lost two fumbles last season — is the first step, but doing so will be the result of establishing better timing in the pocket. A majority of Mertz’s interceptions last seasons were due to holding the ball too long or trying to throw a pass too late and the window of opportunity closing.
Coach Paul Chryst’s track record of coaching quarterbacks at UW includes the heights of Russell Wilson’s stellar season in 2011 and a through line of consistent, smart play. Spring practices are the time to meld that coaching with Mertz’s talent so the quarterback can take a big step forward this fall.
Jalen Berger showed flashes of being the next in the line of great Badgers tailbacks last season, displaying good vision and a suddenness to his cuts that make him hard to tackle. He led UW last season with 301 yards rushing despite playing four of the seven games — he missed the opener against Illinois due to a nagging injury from training camp then missed games against Iowa and Minnesota due to COVID-19.
The Badgers have a solid starting running back with Berger returning, but the depth behind him is a significant question mark. Isaac Guerendo was expected to be in the backfield rotation last season, but he was limited to one game due to unspecified injuries. Julius Davis is another option, but the redshirt freshman only played in one game last season as well.
UW has three freshman tailbacks joining the roster this summer, but spring is a chance for someone to push for reps, especially with new running backs coach Gary Brown’s fresh eyes on the group.
Junior Jake Ferguson returning to the Badgers instead of taking a shot at the NFL not only gave the team its leading receiver back, but also a guide for a talented but inexperienced group of tight ends behind him.
Redshirt freshman Hayden Rucci established himself as the top blocking option in the second tight end spot and likely will be used in a similar role next season, but associate head coach Joe Rudolph said last fall he felt Rucci was developing as a receiver, too. Sophomore Jack Eschenbach was the only tight end besides Ferguson to tally a catch last season.
Cam Large, a 2020 recruit, and Jack Pugh, an early enrollee in the 2021 class, also are waiting in the wings as receiving threats. Ferguson said in December that spring practices are pivotal for this group to develop.
“I couldn't imagine myself after that first year if I didn't have a spring ball,” Ferguson said. “That's literally where I gained all my knowledge, how I got really good at my technique — blocking or route running, whatever, and they didn't get that (in 2020). And I think that's really tough on them. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Just not being able to learn, day in day out, getting all the coaching.”
UW’s offensive line wasn’t the dominant force that fans have come to know in 2020, but that could change in 2021.
After filling in well at left tackle in the second half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, that spot is former five-star recruit Logan Brown’s to lose. Center Kayden Lyles will return from a knee injury in the fall, and the right side has established veterans in guard Logan Bruss and tackle Tyler Beach. Josh Seltzner is presumably a frontrunner for the left guard spot, but touted 2020 recruits like Jack Nelson and Trey Wedig could be pushing for a role there.
Few players behind the aforementioned group have much experience. Cormac Sampson provides depth at center and freshman Tanor Bortolini played extensively when Lyles and Sampson were hurt last season. How the young linemen take advantage of spring reps will determine how much competition there is for roles this fall.
UW got welcomed news this offseason when seniors Danny Davis, Jack Dunn and Kendric Pryor all decided to come back for their final years in the receiver room. Davis and Pryor battled injuries most of the season, with Davis missing five games and Pryor four. Dunn emerged as a solid option on short routes, posting career highs in catches (28) and receiving yards (255).
Freshman Chimere Dike had strong moments last season, but he had trouble getting open consistently.
This will be the first spring practices the receivers get with position coach Alvis Whitted, who was hired last year just before the pandemic hit the U.S. Whitted’s task this spring is to develop the younger group of receivers — players like Dike, Devin Chandler and Isaac Smith — into dependable options this fall. Chandler showed good burst as a returner last season, and he might be a candidate for a head-turning spring session after two classes of receiver recruits failed to break through.
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