Nov. 2, 2011
By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the football team at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Thompson Brown wore No. 44 early in his career. He wore No. 7 as a senior.
Neither number was available when he arrived at UVa in July. Brown was assigned jersey No. 91, a turn of events that did not thrill the freshman defensive end.
“I’m not sure I wanted to wear 91,” Brown said Tuesday. “I knew that 91 would be kind of big shoes to fill.”
One of his strength-and-conditioning coaches at St. Christopher’s reacted differently when Brown told him about his number at UVa. Shad Pospahala chuckled at the news. After his conversion with Brown, Pospahala recalled Wednesday, “I called Chris and said, ‘Hey, man, look at this.’ ”
Pospahala was referring, as you may have guessed, to another defensive end — Chris Long, the most famous No. 91 in the history of UVa football.
When Long was a student at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Pospahala was his personal trainer. Pospahala’s full-time gig then was at UVa, where he was an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach. In October 2007, Pospahala left UVa for St. Christopher’s, where he began working with Brown, then a freshman at the West End school.
“I started Chris out at about the same point,” Pospahala said, “and the two of them are very similar in certain fashions. Both of them had tremendous potential from a physical standpoint. They were very explosive, very strong, and yet both of them kind of always worried if they were good enough to play at the next level. Both of them have such tremendous abilities, it was just a matter of keeping their confidence up.”
Long, who now starts for the St. Louis Rams, was the ACC defensive player of the year and a first-team All-American as a UVa senior in 2007. He was listed that season at 6-4, 284 pounds.
Brown also stands 6-4, but he’s closer to 220 pounds than to 230, said Evan Marcus, UVa’s strength-and-conditioning coach for football, and he’s only eight games into his college career. He’s been used primarily on special teams this fall, and so it would be foolish to suggest that Brown could come close to matching Long’s feats as a Cavalier.
That said, Brown’s potential has his teammates and coaches buzzing.
“He’s a very dynamic player,” senior defensive tackle Nick Jenkins said Monday. “He’s very athletic, he’s very strong, and right now he’s got the potential to be a very great player.”
Defensive line coach Jeff Hanson said: “He’s the kind of athlete we’re looking for outside.”
Brown flashed his speed on national television last Thursday night. With four seconds remaining, the Miami Hurricanes had the ball on the Cavaliers’ 32-yard line, trailing 28-21.
On the visiting team’s sideline at Sun Life Stadium, defensive coordinator Jim Reid yelled, “Last Play,” the name of the lineup UVa employs in such situations. In ran Brown for his first play from scrimmage that night. His instructions were straightforward.
“The coaches just said, ‘Go as deep as you can around [the offensive tackle]. Don’t try to use moves. Just get the quarterback out of there,’ ” Brown recalled.
He executed his assignment like a veteran, racing past Miami’s right offensive tackle and forcing quarterback Stephen Morris, a right-hander, to Morris’ left. Miami’s left tackle eventually hammered Brown with a blindside block, but No. 91 had achieved his goal by then. Morris, under intense pressure, had to settle for a pass underneath to Eduadro Clements, whom the ‘Hoos smothered at the 9. Game over.
“I’ve been on that defense the whole year,” Brown said, “and I was like, ‘That’s a cool situation, the last play, because it’s set up for me to flush the quarterback or sack him or whatever.’ I was wondering if that defense was ever going to be used.”
Of the ends ahead of Brown on UVa’s depth chart, Cam Johnson is a senior, Billy Schautz is a junior, and Jake Snyder and Brent Urban are sophomores. Johnson is the team’s best pass-rusher, and his departure will leave a hole that the Cavaliers expect Brown to help fill in 2012.
“He has great quickness off the line,” Johnson said Monday. “He’s strong, and his hands are pretty violent. He’ll be great at getting to the quarterback.”
The mental side of college football has proved to be a challenge for him, Brown said. “In high school the defenses were so simple. It’s just so different now with the binders full of different things each week. It’s just tough to keep up mentally. And you’re balancing school with that, so you gotta study to really stay on top of that. That’s been the toughest thing for me.”
With four regular-season games left, the Cavaliers need one more victory to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. Virginia (2-2, 5-3) meets ACC rival Maryland (1-4, 2-6) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in College Park. When the season ends, adding much-needed bulk will become Brown’s No. 1 priority.
True freshmen at the skill positions — see wide receiver Darius Jennings and tailback Clifton Richardson — often are able to contribute immediately in college. It’s different, Hanson noted, for linemen.
“They have to be special up front, they have to be quick and fast, they have to be strong, and they have to have enough size,” Hanson said. “That’s what the weight room does for you in the offseason program. So I think with a year in the weight room [Brown is] going to be a tremendous football player for us as a defensive end.”
Long weighed about 245 pounds when he graduated from STAB in 2004, and he put up modest numbers as a UVa true freshman that fall. Long is now listed at 270, and Pospahala believes Brown could eventually play at a similar weight.
“When Thompson was here, he got up to about 240, and he carries that like he’s malnourished,” said Pospahala, who worked with Marcus at UVa. “He’s got a lot of room for growth on that frame.”
Injuries sidelined Brown for much of his junior year at St. Christopher’s, a Prep League school not known for producing major-college football players. Even so, his performances in testing at offseason combines impressed recruiters — Brown consistently ran the 40-yard dash in around 4.6 seconds — and he eventually landed scholarship offers from UVa, Duke, Maryland, Boston College and Ohio, among others.
That he ended up in Charlottesville was no surprise. As a schoolboy, Brown attended football camps at UVa, and two of his brothers graduated from the University. So did his father, Edward Trigg Brown Jr. Thompson’s paternal grandfather also attended UVa, and his maternal grandfather earned a law degree there.
When he arrived at UVa and began training with his new teammates, Brown said, “I was actually surprised. I was figuring I’d be completely overwhelmed, but I feel like I walked out here the first day and knew I could hang with these guys. I’ve always thought less of myself than I should have, but Coach Pospahala was always telling me that he trained Chris in high school and had worked with D-I athletes and that I was going to be fine, with my strength and speed.”
Pospahala said: “I told Thompson that all the time, that Chris always had those same questions: ‘Am I going to be good enough to play at that level?’ ”
Long answered that question emphatically, and Pospahala expects Brown to do the same.
“Both of them kind of were unsure coming from a private-school program about how they would compete against these highly recruited public-school kids,” Pospahala said. “But you could tell from the outside that these kids had talents that a lot of other people didn’t have.”
ALL SAINTS: Brown isn’t the only St. Christopher’s graduate on the UVa roster. Redshirt freshman Alec Vozenilek, who backs up senior punter Jimmy Howell, is expected to compete for the starting job in 2012. Alec’s brother Rob, a first-year student at Virginia, recently joined Tony Bennett’s basketball team as a walk-on.