[The Ducks begin summer workouts this weekend as the incoming freshman join their brothers on campus, beginning their four and five-year adventure as college football players. As we have done annually DSH will profile the new players. The order is alphabetical.]
Oregon outdueled 40 schools for Jalen Brown, an acrobatic receiver from Arizona who considered Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Tennessee and Wisconsin. A good student with a 3.4 G.P.A., he also collected scholarship offers from Yale, Northwestern and Stanford.
Brown started all four years at Mountain Pointe High, leaping and stretching for 50 touchdowns and 3,367 receiving yards. He earned U.S. Army All-American Honors, chosen the Arizona State Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior, leading The Pride to an undefeated season and a state championship as a senior while averaging 23.6 yards a catch.
Mr. Brown comes to town: Jalen Brown secures a catch in the Oregon Spring Game, his first action as a Duck after entering school early (Scott Olmos, USA Today Sports Images.)
Introducing the 2014 class on Signing Day, Mark Helfrich said of the smooth, athletic wideout, “A guy who was typical of his class, a great kid from a great family who was captain of his team, playing for an undefeated state championship team. He’s a physical receiver, a guy who can really go up and get the ball with high, strong hands.”
Jalen typifies the Ducks incoming class in his seriousness and maturity about football. He took online courses last summer so he could graduate early, enrolling at UO in January so that he could participate in spring practice. He and has family drove to USC and UCLA in the spring of his junior year, packing up the car and taking along a couple of other Mountain Pointe kids who were being recruited.
In the heat of the summer they drove through the Midwest, touring Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, evaluating his options in a systematic way. His mother told the Ahwatukee Foothills News, “I was also happy to be able to take Jalen on these visits in different parts of the country to not only give him firsthand experience with different programs, but to see for myself that if he chose to move far away for school/football, he would be in good hands and in a good place.”
Most high school kids use Twitter for goofy photographs and off-the-wall shoutouts to girls. Jalen has a playful side as well, but he also used Social Media to post motivational comments to his teammates. In a story from his junior season, one that ended with a loss to Hamilton in the state final, reporter Jason Skoda of the AFN listed a few examples:
• “Everyone feels fear. Cowards let it stop them from reaching their goal while heroes use it to their advantage. #Courage”
• “It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”
• “I am going to do everything I possibly can to be the best I can be and to impact this team in a positive way.”
A starter in both basketball and football as a freshman, Brown won their respect with both his play and leadership. Fellow wide receiver Thair Blakes told Skoda, “He is so intelligent and knows the game well. He knows every offense and defense we face. People look up to him because he is a tremendous athlete and carries himself right.”
Pride coach Norris Vaughn echoes that praise. He told Richard Obert of The Arizona Republic, “He has matured with the process and he’s ready to go on with the next stage. He really is ready right now, academically, physically and emotionally. A lot of kids are not ready for that emotionally. He is ready.”
“He’ll block, he’ll play defense, he does it all,” Vaughan said. “When we get in a certain situation, he’ll see something and say this might work, calling the play to another receiver. He called the play for someone else and it went for a huge gain.”
Brown is tough and resilient. He was bothered by a high ankle sprain all last summer, but went on to grab 52 balls for 1229 yards and 18 tds in the championship season. He’s the school’s all-time leader in career interceptions with 15. In the season opener against Bishop Gorman, slowed by the ankle and hemmed in by double coverage, he caught just two balls, but he found a way to contribute, breaking up a key third down pass to the tight end from his safety position. He made All-Region in his freshman season, All-Section as a sophomore, All-State in his final two seasons, rated the #12 wide receiver in the country as a senior.
In highlight film he has a flair for the spectacular, a physical receiver who battles for the ball and usually wins, a devastating blocker. He displays great timing, leaping ability and body control. At 6-2, 185 he has the size, speed and athletic ability to be an elite receiver, and the Ducks have a big hole at the position after graduating Josh Huff and losing Bralon Addison to a knee injury.
Can Brown make the jump as a true freshman? Playing spring ball certainly helps, and he got high marks for his attitude and progress during the month of practices. Addison caught 22 balls his freshman year; Huff achieved 303 yards, each accounting for 3 TDs as NCAA rookies. The smooth Arizona product has Chance Allen, Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen and Darren Carrington ahead of him, with Keanon Lowe the only established returning starter. With the nation’s best dual-threat quarterback returning, the Ducks will be looking to make the passing attack a complimentary weapon to their fierce running game, but somebody has to emerge out of this group. Brown will challenge to be that guy, along with fellow freshman Charles Nelson, who displays 10.58 speed in the 100 and a knack for big plays in the return game, something else the Ducks will miss from Addison and the departed De’Anthony Thomas.
The cautionary tale in this saga is B.J. Kelley, who came out of high school with similar numbers and acclaim and dazzling track speed, but has yet to find his stride as a Duck. Now a redshirt junior, he has just 7 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns over his first two seasons, just one catch last year.
In April Andrew Greif of the Oregonian asked receivers coach Matt Lubick about Brown’s progress and the second-year coach said, “He’s very smart. It takes a special person to be able to come into school early and handle everything: academics, a whole new environment, competing with a lot higher caliber talents. And then you’ve got to have some stuff inside you. The difference we talk about playing time with freshmen is if you’re ready to compete and you have to have a lot of confidence, and he has a lot of that.”
With exceptional ability and maturity, Brown could bust the curve as a freshman receiver. The Ducks need him to push for that distinction. It’s possible: USC’s Marqise Lee had 73 catches for 1143 yards as a freshman, including a big night burning the Ducks young cornerbacks as the Trojans ruined a bid for a national title in 2011. Marquess Wilson of Washington State torched PAC-12 secondaries for 55 catches and 1006 yards in his first year. The Ducks have a more talented offense and a better quarterback than either of those squads. While Jalen faces an enormous challenge, he’s always been the kind of athlete to embrace one.