Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Kansas State sophomore running back Bryce Brown.
• Typecasting. Bryce Brown left Tennessee last year as he lived there: Quietly, without a word to the media and barely any with his new head coach. But for a guy who didn't say much of anything before, during or after his brief stint in Knoxville, the image of Brown from his time there — as an attention-seeking, entitled diva who surrounded himself with shady characters, milked the recruiting process for all it was worth, failed to live up to the advance hype on the field and bailed out at the first sign of adversity — isn't going to go easily. In Tennessee, he'll always be a symbol of the sizzling noises Lane Kiffin and Co. made in the kitchen before they snuck out the back door without producing a single steak.
The buzz certainly hasn't followed him home to Kansas, where he toiled in relative obscurity last fall as an ineligible transfer. By all appearances, though, neither has the self-absorbed rap: In Manhattan, Brown and his former five-star brother, Arthur, are still the hometown heroes, the most coveted blue-chips ever to come out of the Sunflower State or to suit up for either of its major programs, even if it took a detour through heavier-hitting programs (Arthur initially signed with Miami) to bring them back. With three years of eligibility still in front of him and most of the drama apparently in the rearview, there's nothing stopping Bryce from being the player the scouts imagined him to be except Bryce. Well, Bryce and a somewhat rebuilding offensive line, but mainly Bryce.
• Best-Case. Quaint as it seems now, there was a reason Brown was the most prized running back in America coming out of high school:
Two years on, he's bringing his powerful 6-foot, 220-pound frame to an offense that's no stranger to transfers or big backs: Outgoing 225-pounder Daniel Thomas led the Big 12 in carries and rushing yards two years in a row out of junior college, with a league-best 19 touchdowns last year as a senior and 13 career 100-yard games to his credit. Within the conference, only Nebraska ran the ball more often, and the Cornhuskers split their carries evenly between three different backs; K-State leaned overwhelmingly on Thomas, with a little help from a pair of alternating quarterbacks, to the extent he eventually logged about seven times as many carries for the year (298) as the rest of the running backs combined (42, mostly in garbage time). Brown is cut from the same slab of marble and is in line to become the same kind of 20-carry-per-game workhorse, with (reportedly) another gear in the open field.
It's worth noting, too, that had he stayed at Tennessee, Brown's modest freshman campaign might seem less like a disappointing debut by a burgeoning bust than typical growing pains by a newcomer feeling his way into the lineup behind a productive veteran. Brown only carried the ball 55 times against SEC opponents, for 211 yards and one touchdown, but attempts weren't all that easy to come by in the same backfield with Montario Hardesty, who churned out well over 1,600 yards from scrimmage in 2009 and was snapped up in the second round of the draft. At the very least, he hasn't had enough opportunity yet to really fail.
• Worst-Case. After a 101-yard debut against helpless Western Kentucky, Brown didn't do much in those carries to cash in on his hypothetical potential: Outside of a 34-yard gain against WKU, he only covered 20 yards on a carry once over the next 10 games, on a 37-yarder against South Carolina. By November, he was barely touching the ball at all, and sat out the bowl game entirely due to a concussion. Two years into his career, you still have to go back to his recruiting reel to justify the attention.
Given the mediocre start, it doesn't say much for what's left of Brown's breakout potential that he's allegedly being pushed hard this spring by diminutive sophomore John Hubert, whose packing enough wallop into his 5-7, 185-pound frame for coach Bill Snyder to suggest with a straight face that he's competing with Brown for full-time duty at the top of the depth chart. Even as an idle, motivational threat, it sounds like an admission that the new big man on campus hasn't opened any eyes there yet.
• Fun Fact. Brown graduated high school a semester early, in December 2008, but instead of enrolling early at Miami (where he had verbally committed before his senior season) for spring practice, he spent most of the next few months dodging the recruiting sites and — according to his "mentor," Brian Butler — fasting over his decision. That's part of the reason it took so long:
"It's basically denying your flesh some of your habits, like eating, to try to let God work through you and to be able to be closer to him," says Brown's mentor, Brian Butler. "It allows you to meditate and hear what he has to say, basically."
Brown, who already has graduated from Wichita (Kan.) East, has never promoted he's fasting to come up with a final choice. Butler said he doesn't plan on divulging the length of Brown's fast.
"When it comes to the Bible, what they try to tell you is really don't promote when you're doing it," Butler said. "This is how we feel it helps you make a good decision, when you have an important one to make.
"That's really the purpose of it. Really, the only reason we let anybody know is because Bryce and his parents still believe that if more kids do this from a spiritual standpoint, it'll help them make the right decision. I know one of Bryce's goals in the future is actually to hold seminars or classes when it comes to the decision-making process from a spiritual standpoint."
Yeah, if the seminar's still on the agenda, Bryce might want to leave off the whole "de-commit from Miami for a surprise signature with Tennessee, only to leave on not-very-amicable terms less than a year later" part off the brochure.
• What to expect in the fall. Brown probably thought he'd be on the verge of the NFL at this point in career, but the reality is he's still very early on the curve with a lot of room to grow. Given his obvious talent and natural fit in the Wildcat offense, there's no reason not to expect him to fill Thomas' shoes as a reliable, every-down, 1,000-yard thumper. There's no reason to expect him to stand out or lift the rest of the offense to a different level, either, but honestly, if we were talking about almost anyone else, commanding 18-20 carries per game as a first-year sophomore starter would sound pretty good.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.