Last year at this time, it's highly unlikely that you knew much about former University of Connecticut running back Donald Brown, unless you were a Big East blogger or a Huskie alumnus. But last season, Brown led the nation in rushing with 2,083 yards, more than he had in 2006 and 2007 combined, and he's got scouts all over the league praying that he'll be available when they're on the clock in this week's NFL Draft.
"I just trained that much harder," says Brown of last season's productivity. "I really dedicated myself." Because of that dedication, he's become a projected late 1st to early 2nd round draft pick, and he owes that to hard work in the gym.
Andrew Wilson, one of the assistant strength and conditioning coaches for UConn's football program, worked closely with Brown in the weight room throughout his college career. "When I first met Donald, he was front-squatting 315 lbs," says Wilson. "So I knew he could push some serious weight. For a little guy, he's got some powerful legs." Little guy is relative (Brown's 5'10", 210 pounds), but Wilson says Brown's squat, which maxes out in the 600-lb range, was second only to one of the behemoths on the offensive line. "I've put a good amount of weight on my back," says Brown. "I've done well over 500 lbs for reps."
Despite the program only requiring the traveling players to lift twice a week — your basic squat, bench, Olympic lift routine — Brown was in the weight room four days a week, sometimes lifting before class or practice, as early as 7 a.m. "College kids, with the strenuous schedule of playing football, don't always want to do that," says Wilson, "but he was here. He would always be here. Never once didn't he show up."
And those extra sessions weren't wasted on 12 sets of bicep curls. "In his mind, the harder the workout, the better it'll prepare him for competition," says Wilson. He put Brown through tough workouts that included grueling compound movements like close-grip bench presses, and floor presses with 105 and 110 lb dumbbells, sometimes with extra band resistance. "One week, he just starts stiff-arming guys left and right, and we all noticed it," he says. "We're like, 'where this coming from?' And he comes over to me after one of the games, and he's like, 'floor pressing is really paying off.'"
Brown actually majored in Exercise Science while at UConn, so he took a particular interest in keeping his body fresh, week in and week out. "I lived in the cold tub," says Brown, who needed to, after rushing the ball over 360 times last year. "I would tell him to make sure he was foam rolling," says Wilson, "and most guys, as simple as foam rolling is, aren't going to take the time to do it, even though they could do it while they're sitting there watching TV. He did the little things."
Those little things spilled over to his pre-combine prep. After the season, Brown switched his attention to the annual meeting of NFL execs where top collegiate prospects are poked, prodded and measured. Brown trained in Irvine, California, at Velocity Fitness. "It almost seemed like we were training like track athletes, since the draft is so focused on running," says Brown. In addition to a ton of sprinting to help him get his 40-yard dash time down, (he ran a 4.51 at the combine, good enough for 5th-best for running backs), Olympic lifts were a focus of the program, as were the staples, bench, squat, and deadlift. Brown also incorporated a bunch of unilateral work to help fix his imbalances, but the sickest part of his training had to be a self-propelled treadmill. With the load cranked up, Brown would sprint for intervals of 10-12 seconds, and says it pushed him as close to losing his lunch as he's ever gotten during a workout. "It was miserable," he says. "It really was."
Brown wasn't the only stud-prospect at the facility. With about 20 guys in total, like linebacker Clay Matthews and quarterbacks Mark Sanchez from USC and Pat White from West Virginia, as well as defensive tackle BJ Raji from Boston College, he had all the motivation he needed to work that much harder, but it's not like he's ever had a problem with motivation.
Brown's last game was a 38-20 International Bowl win over Buffalo. He rushed for 261 yards, earned Player of the Game honors, and officially put UConn football on the map. "He never ever lost sight of what he wanted to do at UConn while he was here," says Wilson. "The leaps and bounds the program has made have been tremendous," adds Brown. "Just to be a part of it was an honor."
"He's just a natural athlete, a true competitor," says Wilson. "He showed our young guys the right way to go about things."
"He's just a really special kid."
Someone will select Donald Brown, but who? Check out the NFL Draft, starting at 4 p.m. EST next Saturday, April 25, live on ESPN.