They now line up across from each other during practice.
One was KeiVare Russell, the energetic junior whose first two seasons at cornerback have earned him a place in the conversation about the nation’s top defensive backs.
The other was Chris Brown, the wide receiver who faded into the background during T.J. Jones’ breakout senior campaign, DaVaris Daniels’ solid junior showing and the emergence a handful of freshmen up-and-comers.
Entering the bowl game with 10 total catches for 155 yards on the season, Brown caught five more for 54 total yards against the Scarlet Knights.
His surge continued into the spring with Jones’ graduation and Daniels’ academic suspension. Facing a crop of game-tested sophomores and a smattering of freshmen, Brown found himself the elder statesmen of the group.
His continued progress throughout spring ball caught the eye of head coach Brian Kelly.
“The guy that has been consistently the best leader since January was Chris Brown,” Kelly said. “He had a great bowl game. He probably had his best game of his career against Rutgers in the bowl game.”
The departure of Jones had a lot to do with that leadership development. Jones helped Brown realize the nuances of the college game.
“He taught me how to be savvy. He taught me how to not let the speed of college not speed your mind up,” Brown said. “Once you can slow your mind down and focus on what you have to do and focus on where you fit in, you can really start to play.”
That “savviness” Jones passed down involves disguising routes and running them more consistently. A 50-yard foot race like Brown’s breakout catch against Oklahoma in 2012 won’t always be possible.
Brown pushes his own brand of leadership in the form of words of encouragement for younger receivers such as Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr. and Justin Brent.
“Obviously in the spring, I was one of the older guys. I had to step up in a leadership role,” Brown said. “But it’s more being that dominant voice, being that rallying voice. It’s me saying that I believe you over any receiver in the country, and I hope that helps motivate these guys.”
He has Russell to thank, in part, for his own improvement. The classmates and close friends off the field exchange barbs and blows on the practice field.
“He gives me a good look at what it’s like to go against an elite corner every day,” Brown said. “Some days I win, some days he wins. That gives me that confidence knowing that I’m going against a very good corner.”
The one-on-one matchups have been paying off. Kelly’s praise of Brown has continued through the off season and spring and through the first week of training camp.
"Chris was clearly our best receiver, consistently,” Kelly said Saturday, Aug. 9. “Route running, releases, he still has to be more consistent in catching the football, but clearly he was our best guy.”