‘He’s a special guy.’ USC invests in teaching Raleek Brown how to play a bigger role
Ryan Kartje (LA Times) — His potential, as a former five-star prospect, has never been in question. But now, as Raleek Brown enters his second season at USC, his future position might be.
The electric Santa Ana Mater Dei High product played strictly running back as a freshman, tallying 402 total yards and six touchdowns during a season slowed early by a high ankle sprain. This spring, however, Brown has been lining up largely at receiver as USC experiments with new ways to integrate the dynamic, all-purpose athlete into its offense.
USC coach Lincoln Riley said the intent in moving Brown around this spring is “to get a full idea of what he really can handle.”
“We’ve been pushing him mentally,” Riley said. “He’s done a good job responding. We’re putting him in some new positions. He’s learning, but also he has a natural athleticism and an explosion that makes him fit a lot of places.”
Where Brown might best fit on a football field had been a question long before he arrived at USC. As a freshman at Stockton Edison High, Brown caught 31 passes for 741 yards, averaging nearly 24 yards per reception. During his first two seasons at Edison, he caught 18 touchdowns.
At Mater Dei, Brown played more of a bit part as a receiver, catching 12 passes in nine games. But as his senior season went along, then Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson began to experiment with lining up Brown all over the field or sending him into motion to manufacture mismatches. Just the threat of his speed forced defenses to take notice.
“He could take over a football game at any time,” Rollinson said last fall.
Brown showed flashes of that game-breaking potential as a freshman, even striking a Heisman pose after scoring his first touchdown during USC’s season opener. But the ankle injury he suffered that first Saturday lingered. Brown was limited to 21 touches during the nine games that followed, stunting his progress.
Raleek Brown strikes a Heisman Trophy pose after scoring a TD against RICE on Sept. 3 at the Coliseum. (Ashley Landis / AP)
It wasn’t until November that he finally got back on track, finishing with four touchdowns during USC’s final five games.
“That kind of put him on hold,” Riley said in early March when asked about Brown’s ankle injury. “I think his role and what he was able to do at a high level increased as the year went on, and I think the offseason has been a nice chance to take a step back with him and really identify, ‘Here’s what you did well, here’s where you’ve got to become more consistent and more dependable and really understand the entire offense and your role in it.’ ”
That wasn’t always the case in his first season, as Brown sometimes struggled to grasp his responsibilities without the ball in his hands.
“Certainly he’s an explosive player and you want to have those guys out there, but those players, they’ve got to be able to play the plays when they don’t have the ball,” Riley said. “That’s what he improved at and that’s been our push to him, that natural second-year jump where you really understand the offense, your preparation goes up, your mental focus level goes up. … I feel like he’s growing up. He’s handled things better this offseason, his approach is better, so he’s just gotta keep going.”
Coaches say he has embraced that challenge. In response, they’ve added another position to his plate.
Brown played one snap out of the slot last season. Now he’s spending most of his days there, learning a new role where he might not even be featured in the fall.
His quarterback likes what he sees so far, at least, even if Brown still has to learn the finer points of the position.
“He’s a special guy, special talent,” Caleb Williams said of Brown. “His hands are a lot better than probably what people think. His route running, we’re working on it. He played running back for a year, and a lot of times, in high school, he wasn’t running the routes he is now. We’re working on it, but he has a natural talent for it.”
How much he’ll use that talent at receiver in the fall is still to be determined. But the depth USC suddenly has at running back makes it a lot easier to deploy Brown in the slot instead.
Riley said Tuesday that USC’s running backs have “been a real bright spot” during spring practice. Both he and running backs coach Kiel McDonald heaped praise especially on true freshmen A’Marion Peterson and Quinten Joyner.
“Those two young guys are going to be very good players at USC, very good players,” McDonald said.
Where that leaves Brown in a potential five-back rotation remains to be seen. But for the time being, USC’s backfield depth means more time for Brown elsewhere.
“With having five guys back there that we’re pretty excited about, it’s allowed us to move Raleek around,” Riley said. “We’re just trying to evaluate it, expose these guys to a lot, and then we’ll start to narrow it down as we get closer to fall.”
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