Football: Cut from the same cloth
Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, April 20, 2007
This offseason, Irish coach Charlie Weis realized something needed to be done.
Last season, Notre Dame’s defense ranked 65th out of 119 Division 1 schools, surrendered 5.48 yards per play and allowed the toughest teams it played – Michigan, USC and LSU – to score more than 40 points each.
Weis did not renew former defensive coordinator Rick Minter’s contract in January and began a search for a new defensive coordinator. He turned to some of the greatest football minds in the game today for advice to fill the vacancy.
“I called up [Cowboys] Coach [Bill] Parcells. I called up [Patriots] Coach [Bill] Belichick. I called up [Browns] Coach [Romeo] Crennel and called up [Virginia] Coach [Al] Groh. And they came up with one name,” Weis said in a Jan. 19 press conference.
“They said you should hire Corwin Brown.”
Brown was born in Chicago, the son of two public school teachers, and at an early age he became an athlete, playing football and running track at Julian High School. Brown had an impressive football career at Julian, earning all-state honors as a defensive back.
Because of this success, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler offered Brown a scholarship to play safety with the Wolverines. Brown spent four years (1989-1992) in Ann Arbor on teams that never finished the season ranked below No. 7 in the final polls, accumulating a 38-7-3 record during Brown’s time there with three Rose Bowl appearances.
In his senior year with the Wolverines, he was named a tri-captain and came in second on the team with 82 tackles. Brown won first-team All-Big Ten honors in 1992.
Brown’s impressive college career caught the eye of the New England Patriots’ staff, led by Bill Parcells. The Patriots took the Wolverines strong safety in the fourth round of the 1993 NFL Draft with the 110th overall pick. Brown continued to learn under one of the top coaching staffs in the NFL, including position coaches Al Groh, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. Eventually, Bill Belichik joined the staff in 1996 as the defensive backs coach. This coaching staff led the Patriots to the Super Bowl and gave Brown a premium education in coaching.
“Nobody’s born knowing this stuff. And if you’re fortunate enough to be around good guys, which I have been, you just try to take something from them,” Brown said. “You try to see what they do, what worked, and you try to apply that for yourself.”
Brown followed Parcells to the New York Jets in 1997 before finishing his career with two seasons in Detroit. In 1998, Brown earned his only Pro Bowl selection as the special teams alternate for the AFC.
Brown was a special teams standout during his NFL career, registering at least 10 special teams tackles per season from 1994-2000. In total, he finished with 177 tackles in 120 games played, including 20 starts.
With his playing days behind him in 2001, Brown knew he wanted to stay in football and found a way to keep involved – coaching.
“I knew Corwin wanted to be a coach six months after I met him his rookie year in 1993,” Bill Parcells said of Brown in a statement released by Notre Dame.
Brown finally got his wish in 2001 when Groh asked him to coach Virginia’s special teams. In three years in Charlottesville, he learned the intricacies of college coaching, including the recruiting process and how to blend upperclassmen and incoming freshmen to get the most effective unit possible.
Brown began his work with a veteran special teams lineup, including All-ACC punter Mike Abrams. Although Abrams and placekicker David Green left early, Brown continued working with young players to keep the Cavalier kicking game strong in 2002-3.
Brown’s special teams saw a lot of success during his last two years at Virginia. In 2002, the punt coverage unit allowed less than 10 yards per return for the first time in five years, while the kickoff coverage team ranked second in the ACC. This success spilled over into the 2003 campaign when the Cavaliers averaged 9.3 yards per return on punts and 24.8 yards per return on kickoffs.
The next big jump in Brown’s career came in 2004 when then-New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards offered him a job as the assistant special teams and assistant defensive backs coach. Edwards later promoted him to defensive backs coach before the 2004 training camp – a position he held for the next three years.
Brown helped improve the Jets secondary drastically in his first season. The defensive backs nabbed 14 of the Jets’ 19 interceptions – a 40 percent increase from 2003. Brown also molded rookie Erik Coleman – a fifth-round choice in the 2004 draft – to an NFL starter. Coleman finished the season third on the team with 88 tackles and also recorded four picks and two sacks while starting all 16 games.
Brown’s secondary continued to improve the next two years. In 2005, the Jets allowed only 172.2 passing yards per game, second-best in the NFL. Last season, the New York’s defensive backs accounted for 14 of the team’s 16 picks while allowing only 21 plays of 25 yards or more.
But after six successful seasons as a position coach, Brown was ready to move on and accepted Weis’ offer in January to become the newest defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
As Brown re-entered college coaching this year, he remained focused on the task at hand – winning.
“I really haven’t even had time to think about [the transition],” Brown said. “Because you come in and its recruiting, then we’re trying to get the system implemented, then you start spring ball and you’re still recruiting. So it’s really not about me anyway, it never has been.”
The change has not only impacted Brown as he must adapt to a new school, but the defensive players who have to learn how their new coach operates.
“[Brown’s coaching style] is more of a passive-aggressive. He just wants us to relax and play,” cornerback Ambrose Wooden said. “He’s been there before – he knows what it’s like to be out there. And that’s what we try to focus on – being more patient and just being physical at the line of scrimmage.”
Fifth-year senior safety Tom Zbikowski said Brown and the defensive players have meshed well together this spring.
“I think the players accepted him and he accepted us as players,” he said. “If you’re not running the ball, if you’re not playing hard, you’re gonna get taken out no matter who you are, and that’s what I think why we respect him as players.”
But as they learn what their coach expects of them, the players have also had to learn a completely new system this season – Brown’s 3-4 defense.
One of the most important facets of the 2007 spring practices has been how Notre Dame’s defensive players will adjust to Corwin Brown’s 3-4 personnel scheme.
Brown said in his introductory press conference Jan. 19 that he has experience working with and coaching both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defense and would look at the personnel to determine which system he would implement. Early in the spring, Brown chose to revamp the Irish defense.
The most obvious change in the defense comes with the front seven. Rising fifth-year senior Trevor Laws, who started the last two seasons at defensive tackle in the 4-3 defense, made one of the most high-profile moves, switching to play on the end. Although the rest of the line is not set – and may not be set until August practices – one of the main competitors to play alongside Laws at nose tackle is sophomore Chris Stewart. Stewart entered Notre Dame as an offensive lineman, but made the switch to defense because he could best serve the team there. Stewart said Brown has been incredibly helpful with the transition.
“It basically is his defense, and he’s familiar with it,” Stewart said. “He knows a lot about how to play the position. Really a lot of technique things I need to work on.”
Stewart missed time earlier this spring with an ankle injury, but remains confident going into the Blue-Gold game as part of a continuing process of his move to defense.
“Things like this take time. We’ll just see how it develops.” Stewart said. “I’m steadily making progress despite the setback. I think it will turn into a good move.”
The other major change is at the linebacker position. Although Notre Dame returns two backers this year – Maurice Crum, Jr. and Joe Brockington – they will have to learn how to operate with only three men in front of them.
The one part of the defense that has the least adjustment to make is the secondary. Zbikowski understands that as the rest of the defense changes, his job remains constant.
“Sometimes [the linebacker will] be wider, as opposed to [defensive ends] Vic [Abiamiri] or [Chris] Frome last year, who were down in the three. It’s just a different view for that,” he said. “But as a defensive back, you’re going to be playing the same coverage no matter what.”
Although schematically the secondary will not change much, Brown is focused on giving up fewer “explosives” – big plays caused by offensive skill players getting behind the defense – more than ever before.
“I think Coach Brown and the coaches have a different mindset. They’re just making it that certain things are unacceptable. And that’s definitely stuck in my mind,” Wooden said. “I could name on 100 fingers how many explosives we’ve given up since I’ve been here. And I’ve definitely been a part of them. That was never preached on like it is now.”
After watching his defense in the 3-4 all spring, Brown still knows there is work to be done.
“I am not satisfied right now and when I say I, I mean we as a staff,” he said. “We’re not satisfied – we’ve got work to do collectively. But there has been some progress.”
And with the experience and instruction he has, he would know.