By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 11, 2006
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- On most fourth downs, the entire Virginia Tech offense trots off the field and yields to the punt team, save one player whom an average fan may not even notice. Duane Brown remains, hands on hips, waiting for his teammates to shuffle off and shuffle on.
"If you see me line up and didn't know anything about me," Brown said, "you probably wouldn't expect much out of me."
Brown plays offensive tackle, a position for stationary behemoths, the kind of player no coach would want covering punts. But Brown, a converted tight end in his second season as the Hokies' starting right tackle, uses his stunning speed and nimble feet to turn that stereotype into smithereens. Brown is the rare offensive lineman who covers punts, as athletic a tackle as the country offers.
"It's amazing," Virginia Tech offensive line coach Curt Newsome said. "You see one like him come along every so often."
Some Hokies were skeptical, Brown included, when Coach Frank Beamer slotted Brown on the punt team. But Brown had played tight end his first season at Virginia Tech before gaining 15 pounds, and he had somehow maintained his agility. Beamer, unlike most coaches fearful of injury, plays his stars on special teams, and he decided Brown would be one of the 11 best for the job.
"He beats me down there sometimes," said cornerback Roland Minor, a gunner on the punt team. "We get down there, and I look over at him and we're neck and neck."
Opposing players receive the same shock. In the Gator Bowl last season, Louisville linebacker Brandon Johnson lined up across from Brown before a punt, leaned down and said, "You're a beast."
Against Clemson, Brown released quickly and charged down the field as a punt fell out of the sky into the arms of C.J. Spiller, one of the faster players in the country. Brown squared him up with the sideline to his left, funeled him that way and made the tackle alone.
"He wasn't the only scared one," Brown said. "I was looking around, waiting for him to make a move. If he made one move, it could have got ugly. But I just tried to use the sideline as my friend. I knew if I had him in the open field, it wouldn't have been any kind of match."
Safeties have trouble sizing up the quicksilver Spiller, but Brown had corralled him, delivering a shipment of surprise. "You're a big boy," Spiller told him. After the game, a Clemson assistant coach told Brown he had never seen someone his size run that fast.
Against Miami, Brown made another tackle on punt coverage, but also added to his special teams lore by blocking a field goal. He collapsed the Hurricanes' line with Kory Robertson, then leaped and deflected the kick.
Before that play, Brown had exhausted himself to the point that Newsome thought he was going to vomit on the sideline. He has to lug 290 pounds down the field in full sprint every punt after blocking defensive ends, and Virginia Tech punted eight times in the Miami haze.
"I've never seen Duane so tired," Newsome said.
The wear is worth the sacrifice for both the Hokies and Brown. He can display his speed, and Virginia Tech uses his talent to its full potential.
"It's fun for me," Brown said. "I thought it would be a problem earlier in the season with me taking so many snaps on offense, but through the first few games I'm happy to be on it. I've been fortunate enough to be able to showcase my abilities on special teams."
Not that he really needs it, but covering punts gives Brown another chance to show off his athleticism. If NFL scouts didn't notice his quick feet in pass protection last season when he neutralized Mario Williams, the first pick in this year's NFL draft, or his strength when he plowed a hole for Branden Ore's game-winning touchdown run at Miami, they'll see it when he flies down the field. Brown said earlier this season he plans to stay at Virginia Tech for his senior season, but whenever he's ready for the NFL, the NFL will certainly be ready for him.
"Every time we see him, we just say he's making more and more money," linebacker Brenden Hill said. "That's the joke around the locker room, that Duane is going to be a rich person very soon. We joke with him that he could have been a millionaire on offense or defense, because he's so aggressive and so intense that he could play any position and be good at it."
And maybe any sport, too. Minor said Brown is one of the Hokies' best basketball players when the team plays pickup, that his low-post moves, punctuated with dunks, are unstoppable. On a team stocked with great athletes, some players think Brown, pound for pound, is the best.
"I can't say that," Brown said. "There are some great athletes on this team. I can't call myself that. I don't like to call myself the best. I'll let somebody else make that decision for me."