It was the first day of spring practice, and Georgia Tech’s March workout had barely begun. Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude was taking it in, not knowing a vast amount about the players he was seeing on the field for the first time beyond game video from the previous season.
“And I turned to (wide receivers coach) Kerry Dixon, and I said, ‘That’s our starting slot,’” Patenaude said this week. “Within eight reps.”
Those who have been following the Yellow Jackets this season shouldn’t have much trouble guessing whom Patenaude had identified – freshman Ahmarean Brown. In six games – and really, he did it even before the season began – Brown has marked himself as a playmaking threat and an integral part of Tech’s offense. His ability to get free of coverage and his sure hands have made him a favorite target of quarterback James Graham, and Patenaude would like to get him the ball even more, starting Saturday at Miami.
“Because he just has natural ability,” Patenaude said. “He’s got a natural feel for how to play. He weaves himself in and out of traffic really well.”
While the Jackets have not been awash in highlights through six games, Brown has delivered more than his share. He got behind Clemson’s defense for a 28-yard touchdown pass from Graham for his first career catch and touchdown. He got open down the seam for a 40-yard catch from Tobias Oliver against Temple. Against North Carolina, it was a 32-yard touchdown catch from Graham after he shredded coverage. Against Duke, it was a 40-yard pass from Graham that Brown ran under while at top speed. Brown secured the ball as it dropped over his right shoulder, showing superior concentration as he caught the ball on his final inbounds step.
“You can’t catch it any better than he did on that play,” Patenaude said.
Brown has been a bright light as the Jackets transition to Patenaude’s spread and perhaps a hopeful hint of what may be to come in Tech’s talent identification and recruiting. Coach Geoff Collins began his recruitment of Brown, from Tampa, Fla., after his hire last December. Tech’s wide receiver corps fit the type needed to play in former coach Paul Johnson’s offense – tall enough to win the 50-50 deep shots that the Jackets took on play-action passes, sturdy enough to block the perimeter in the run game.
Collins needed someone with speed and agility to play the slot, and he found Brown, who backed off a commitment to Maryland in November with the program in turmoil. Coach D.J. Durkin was fired in late October following the death of a team member who died after suffering heatstroke in a workout.
Brown is but 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, but had run the 100-meter dash in 10.4 seconds. He signed with Tech in December and enrolled in January. Two months later, he was opening Patenaude’s eyes in spring practice.
“He’s sudden (in his movement),” Patenaude said. “He’s football smart. Because as a slot receiver, you have to be football smart because a lot of what we do in the pass game are conversion routes. So if they’re in this defense, you do this. If they’re in this defense, you do this, and the route changes based on the coverage.”
Speaking on Collins’ radio show last week, Dixon called Brown’s feet “amazing.” Brown can sell a fake and change direction with hardly a change in speed. His touchdown against North Carolina demonstrated it. With Tech at the Tar Heels’ 32-yard line, he turned crisply to the sideline, drawing in cornerback Don Chapman, before shifting back upfield and rocketing down the west sideline. The change of direction was so quick and the acceleration so powerful that Chapman was spun out of his backpedal and could only give chase to Brown and watch him gather in Graham’s pass for a 32-yard touchdown.
There is a reason that, while he has nine catches for 200 yards, he has been targeted another 13 times.
“I could have a guy in my face, and (if) I know Ahmarean’s one-on-one with a guy, I can just throw it up and I know he’s going to come down with it,” Graham said.
There’s little surprise that Patenaude wants to get the ball to Brown more frequently, whether it’s a jet sweep, a slant, a screen or some other way to get him the ball and let him use his speed.
“We’ve talked about that a lot,” Patenaude said.
Tech and Patenaude have two or three more years to continue the conversation.
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