When you are the top-ranked high school player in the country, it's no secret that expectations for your first year in college football are going to be through the roof. And so it's probably not a surprise that with only 460 yards this season, some fans have questioned just how "good" running back Bryce Brown really is at the collegiate level.
Never mind the fact that Brown averaged 4.5 yards a carry, 13.7 yards a catch, four touchdowns and didn't have a turnover all season. Despite the solid freshman year, Brown said that he completely understands the expectations people had for him.
"I don't think it's unfair," Brown said of those expectations. "Unfortunately that (rushing success) didn't happen as much as I would have liked it to happen. I got my first year under my belt and I will be better next year. I am focused on the bowl game and sending the seniors out with a win. But I am excited about the future too."
Neither does Brown's head coach, who believes the Wichita, Kan., native would have had a monster year if not for the fact that Vols senior Montario Hardesty punished opposing defenses for more than 1,300 yards.
"I think he would have done that if he would have had the opportunity to. His average per carry was up there. He played extremely well," said UT coach Lane Kiffin. "There was a variable that a lot of people wouldn't have been able to predict, and that was a 1,300-yard rusher in front of him. Hardesty had more carries than any tailback in the SEC, including the Heisman Trophy winner (Mark Ingram at Alabama) who played one more game than him. So I think that was something that probably shocked a lot of people and that had a lot to do with it."
Brown admits that at times the season has been frustrating, but he believes everyone goes through it as part of the adjustment to the college game. As his first year comes to a close, the 6-foot, 215-pounder believes it has made him a better player.
"I think it is (frustrating), but I think it's what everyone goes through at some point in time," Brown said. "I think it is good for everyone. For me that is what it was. It was frustrating but it's more mental than it is physical by far.
"I think it has been harder than I thought. Just not knowing what to expect. This year was good for me. I think everyone has to go through this at some point in time in their career. Better early than late."
Now with more than a month separating Tennessee's regular-season finale at Kentucky and its Dec. 31 appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech, Kiffin sees a rejuvenated Brown - along with the Vols' other freshmen.
"I feel like all three (David Oku, Tauren Poole and Bryce Brown) of them are [competing]," Kiffin said of the Vols' tailbacks vying to replace Hardesty. "I feel like Bryce looks the best that he has. I think freshmen in general the season gets so long, they get so worn down and it's so different than what they're used to in high school that their bodies start to wear down. Then when they have a little bit of break like they did after the season they come back refreshed and so I think our freshmen in general have looked better."
A contributing factor to some of Brown's frustrations was the unknown in August of whether or not he was going to get to play because of an ongoing NCAA investigation. Another factor was a hip injury that Brown said has bothered him all year.
"I think overall the pounding on my body affected me," Brown said. "I don't think I was 100-percent for any game. That's just how it is. I know going into next season taking care of my body and preparing myself doing the extra stretching and extra icing. Those things count. I need to take advantage of those things."
Earlier this month, Brown's position coach, Eddie Gran, who was a key influence to Brown's recruitment, left for Florida State. Brown said losing Gran was tough, but it's part of the business and he is happy for his former position coach.
"It's all business," Brown said. "I know it was a great opportunity for him and his family. I know how the business works. Coaches come and go. You pick a place where you feel you are going to succeed and have confidence in the head coach. I have a lot of confidence that coach Kiffin will get someone in here that fits our style and that will continue to push us and make us better players."
Being a better player is Brown's focus as he soaks in the experience of his first season and will enter his sophomore year wiser about lots of things.
"I would say mental toughness and taking things as it is," Brown said of his biggest improvement this year. "In the beginning, I didn't know what to expect. Now, I am broken in and I know what to expect coming into next year. I think it was a nice season for me as far as learning and getting my feet wet."
NOT SPECIAL YET
Gran's departure also was a blow to the Vols' special teams work. Though the veteran assistant coach devised a game plan for Tennessee's special teams against the Hokies, who are notoriously effective in the "third phase" of football.
Kiffin has shuffled around his assistant coaches' duties in handling Tennessee's special teams preparations, but he isn't satisfied with what has been accomplished.
"No, we have a lot of work to do. With Eddie Gran not being here and guys in charge of new groups, there's a lot to be done," Kiffin explained. "We've moved around some depth charts, changed some scheme stuff. So I'm glad we have extra time to prepare because of that."
Devin Mathis appears to be further solidifying his role as the team's place-kicker through the first couple weeks of bowl preparations.
The Vols continue to be relatively healthy, though quarterback Jonathan Crompton participated only in individual drills for the second consecutive day as he rested his banged up right, throwing hand. Offensive linemen Aaron Douglas and Jacques McClendon also appeared to get a little nicked up in practice, though Kiffin indicated both players would have persevered in a game situation.
"Jonathan only went through individuals today; could have played if we needed him to play but rest him another day. His hand is still sore, and shoulder," Kiffin said. "Stephaun Raines and Dan Williams both had concussion issues, as well as Wes Brown. So they all three of them were limited. Other than that we're pretty healthy. Continued to pound away. Very physical practice. Guys were in good spirits. We're making progress. We'll have another Wednesday (type of practice Monday) and come back out here again and finish with a Thursday before they go on break."
"Jacques is fine. Aaron towards the end of practice said his ankle was bothering him; he could have kept playing if it was a game so he didn't finish," Kiffin said.
While Crompton has missed the past two days' team drills, rising senior Nick Stephens has continued his strong December.
"I think it's a very good example of when someone has to play, they play better usually. He's done really well," Kiffin said of the Flower Mound, Texas, signal-caller. "He's playing the best he's played since we've been here. A lot of that has to do with he's going in there with the 1s and going in there with a tight end that's playing extremely well, a couple of tailbacks and receivers. When you go in with those guys, it helps. Especially as well as those guys have been playing."
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