After Illinois running back Chase Brown rushed for 1,000-plus yards in 2021 for the first time in his fourth college football season, one would think he would feel a sense of accomplishment — relief, even. But that wasn’t the case.
“Honestly, I thought it would feel better,” Brown said in an exclusive with PFF. “It felt good, it was always a goal of mine to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but once I achieved that, I just wanted to do more.”
So far in 2022, Brown is doing just that. Through four weeks (technically five, if you count Week 0) of the 2022 college football season, Brown leads the nation in rushing yards (604) and yards per game (151) and ranks second in total rushing attempts (95). Brown is the Fighting Illini's workhorse back this season. But, as the saying goes: To whom much is given, much will be required. That’s why Brown has been in the lab all offseason getting ready for such a workload.
“When you get those one-on-one situations, whether it’s on the outside or wherever, just getting that muscle memory for a go-to move, whether it’s a dead leg or something I can throw together, just mastering that,” Brown said. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve done anything crazy. I think there’s more to come.”
And we’re seeing the fruits of that mindset. Despite the massive carry total already, Brown leads the Big Ten in forced missed tackles per attempt (0.31). Those missed tackles have led to Brown also leading the conference in explosive runs (rushes of 10 yards or more). Being so effective in two of the most crucial metrics for running the ball is no small feat. For Brown, it stems more from growth in vision than growth in technique.
“You can have good footwork, but what’s more important is understanding where you’re going to go,” Brown said. “Every team runs the same type of run concepts; tight zone, outside zone, power, counter, and just understanding where they’re supposed to hit and different ways they can hit, having a muscle memory of what’s in front of you.”
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Brown knows the importance of practice reps when gaining that muscle memory. But he also referenced mental reps, both when on the sidelines and also in the film room, that are the roots of a successful process for every carry. He talked about being able to close his eyes and envision plays and situations to come. Sometimes when he’s watching a film of an upcoming opponent, he’ll also watch what the other team’s running back is doing. Did their process work? How did they attack a certain look — one Brown knows will show up in the game to come. It’s not just about seeing what the other team will do or how they will set up, but also envisioning exactly how to beat it by putting himself in the shoes of the back he’s watching.
Brown is currently under the tutelage of long-time college football coach Bret Bielema, who coached at Wisconsin from 2006-2012, then at Arkansas from 2013-2017 before bouncing around the NFL as an assistant. Now he’s back in the college ranks at Illinois. Bielema’s extensive coaching career has given Brown an experienced figure to lean on.
“Coach B has been around so many great players,” Brown said. “His knowledge of the game is so much greater than mine. He’s seen it all. I try to sit down with him to pick his brain. There have been a couple of times where he’s talked about other running backs he’s had in the past and what they’ve done to be successful.”
Bielema has coached running backs Melvin Gordon III, Montee Ball, James White and Alex Collins, to name a few. Each had a unique play style — and with it, a unique level of success. The head coach has used examples of backs in the past to show Brown how he can have success with his style, Brown said. One way is his “high” running style and how to make sure he can lean forward to still lower his shoulders in order to take contact better. That’s certainly showing up with his 371 yards after contact through four games this season.
Brown feels his game is strongest in zone concepts. He’s confident in the chaos of a moving trench. He believes he has a good feel for that kind of scheme, and the results are speaking for themselves. His vision from all those practice and mental reps and his “shoulders over toes” technique to bounce off tackles are proving to form of the most effective skill sets in college football.
With plenty of meaningful Big Ten games on the horizon for Illinois, Brown will have plenty more opportunities for that FBS rushing title and a potential Doak Walker Award.