“He’s a special boy.” USC invests in teaching Raleek Brown how to play a bigger role

His potential, as a former five-star prospect, has never been in doubt. But now, as Raleek Brown enters his second season at USC, it could be the position of the future.

The electric Santa Ana Mater Dei High product played with grit as a freshman, totaling 402 yards and six touchdowns in a season slowed by a major ankle sprain. This spring, however, Brown has lined up largely at receiver as USC experiments with new ways to integrate the dynamic, versatile athlete into its offense.

USC coach Lincoln Riley said the plan to move Brown this spring is to “get a full idea of ​​what he can really handle.”

“We’re done mentally,” Riley said. “He has done a good job of responding. We are putting in some new positions. He’s learning, but he’s also got natural athleticism and a burst that fits him in a lot of places.”

Whether Brown would be a better fit on a football field was a question long before he arrived at USC. As a freshman at Stockton Edison High, Brown caught 31 passes for 741 yards, an average of nearly 24 yards per reception. In his first two seasons at Edison, he caught 18 touchdowns.

At Mater Dei, Brown played a slightly larger role as a receiver, catching 12 passes in nine games. But as his senior season progressed, then Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson began experimenting with aligning Brown all over the field or sending him in motion to manufacture mismatches. The threat of his speed forced defenses to take notice.

“He could take over a football game at any time,” Rollinson said last fall.

Brown showed flashes of that game-breaking potential as a freshman, even making a striking Heisman appearance after scoring his first touchdown in USC’s season opener. But the ankle injury he suffered that first Saturday persisted. Brown was limited to 21 touches over the next nine games, halting his progress.

USC running back Raleek Brown strikes a Heisman Trophy pose after scoring a touchdown against Rice on Sept. 3 at the Coliseum.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

It wasn’t until November that he finally got back on track, finishing with four touchdowns in USC’s final five games.

“That stopped him,” Riley said when asked about Brown’s ankle injury in early March. “I think his role and what he was able to do at a high level increased as the year went on, and I think the offseason was a nice opportunity to take a step with him and really identify with, ‘Here’s what you did well.’ , this is where you have to be more consistent and reliable and really understand the whole offense and your role in it.” “

That wasn’t always the case in his first season, as Brown sometimes struggled to take on his responsibilities without the ball in hand.

“He’s definitely an explosive player and you want to keep those guys out, but those players have to be able to make plays when they don’t have the ball,” Riley said. “He got better at that and that’s been our push for him, that natural second-year jump, where you really understand the offense, your preparation goes up, your level of mental focus goes up. … I feel like it’s growing. He’s handled things better this season, his vision is better, so he has to keep going.”

According to the coaches, he has reached that challenge. In response, another position has been added to his plate.

Brown hit a groove last season. Now he spends most of his days there, learning a new role that might not appear in the fall.

He likes what he sees of his quarterback so far, at least, though Brown still has to learn the finer points of the position.

“He’s a special guy, a special talent,” Caleb Williams said of Brown. “His hands are probably a lot better than people think. We are working on his career. He ran track for a year, and often in high school he didn’t run the routes he does now. We are working on it, but he has a natural talent for it.”

USC running back Raleek Brown, left, is congratulated by quarterback Caleb Williams after scoring a touchdown.

USC running back Raleek Brown, left, is congratulated by quarterback Caleb Williams after scoring a touchdown against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2 in Arlington, Texas.

(Sam Hodde/Associated Press)

It remains to be seen how much he will use that talent at receiver in the fall. But USC’s depth at running back makes it much easier to spread Brown out in the slot.

Riley said Tuesday that USC’s running backs have been “real bright spots” in spring practice. He and running backs coach Kiel McDonald especially praised true freshmen A’Marion Peterson and Quinten Joyner.

“Those two young guys are going to be very good players at USC, very good players,” McDonald said.

Where that leaves Brown in a potential back five rotation remains to be seen. But for now, USC’s backcourt depth means more time for Brown elsewhere.

“Having five guys in there that we’re pretty excited about, Raleigh has given us a chance to move,” Riley said. “We’re trying to evaluate it, show these guys a lot, and then we’ll start to taper off as we get closer to fall.”

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