Two summers ago, after he tore his ACL during a preseason practice, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown knew what he faced as he worked his way back. Surgery. Months of wearing a leg brace, lying in bed and calling to his roommates for glasses of water. The Maryland quarterback had built a reputation on speed, but this injury made him immobile. He couldn’t play football, nor could he try.
This season, Brown has absorbed the type of hits that make players gun-shy and change careers. A punishing blow at Florida State sliced his lip and gave him a concussion. Several more at Wake Forest sidelined Brown with what the team called a “trunk” injury, meaning both his hip and oblique were shaken up.
Upstairs, Brown felt fine. He knew his assignments and how to execute them. But physically, something was wrong. Defensive linemen caught Brown from behind. The burst between the tackles was gone. Reality soon dawned: Brown wasn’t fast anymore.
“It was more frustrating,” he said. “Mentally, I was there. To go out there and not be able to do the things you know you’re capable of doing, it’s frustrating. There’s nothing you can do but try to get healthy and continue to work hard every day.”
Saturday’s 27-24 victory over Virginia Tech marked the healthiest Brown has been since early September, when his body still could do the things he wanted it to do. Maybe Brown was a step slower than his preseason self against the Hokies, but he delivered his greatest game of the season by topping 100 yards rushing and accounting for three touchdowns.
Against Virginia Tech’s man-to-man coverage, much of Brown’s ground success came on aborted passing plays, when Hokies defensive backs blanketed Maryland’s receivers and left Brown little option but to tuck and go. Midway through the fourth quarter, Coach Randy Edsall pulled Brown aside on the sideline and told him to stop hesitating. If Virginia Tech wanted to vacate the second level, Brown should reap the benefits.
“It’s definitely spur of the moment,” Brown said Tuesday. “Not too many designed runs or the option, anything like that. A lot of that was the drop-back passes, them dropping into man coverage, our guys getting covered. With that said, they’re turning and running so they don’t see what’s going on. If I can break a tackle, it’s off to the races.”
Brown had the two worst outings of the season during Maryland’s three-game losing streak to Wake Forest, Clemson and Syracuse. He traveled to Lane Stadium with negative rushing yards during ACC games, looking tentative in the zone-read game and unlike himself through the air. But health begat confidence for Brown, because he knew he could again squirt by those big-bodied tacklers, and that begat the biggest win since Edsall came to College Park.
“I think C.J. was the healthiest he’s been since the Florida State game,” Edsall said. “You talk about confidence, he had more confidence in his own ability to be able to run and do the things that he knows he’s capable of doing. I think that’s always a big part. There during the stretch of games, when I talked to him, he felt like he couldn’t have that burst, that explosion that he didn’t normally have. When you don’t feel that, the confidence doesn’t’ allow you to do those sorts of things, it’s tough. He had that feeling back in his body, in his legs, those sorts of things.”
It seemed only fitting, then, that when Maryland needed a game-winning touchdown in overtime, Brown’s legs delivered. Virginia Tech jammed tight end Dave Stinebaugh at the line of scrimmage, so Brown scrambled to his left. The dive over the pylon underscored what had once concerned him, teammates, coaches and fans for weeks: Brown was back.
“It’s great to see C.J. have a performance like that, especially that last play,” defensive back A.J. Hendy said. “Through the weeks, through the season, people haven’t been saying the best things about him. It was good for him to bounce back and prove people wrong.”