LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's the first name, really, that jumps off the University of Louisville football depth chart heading into the start of spring practice, which begins today for the Cardinals.
Dominique Brown is back on top. Or at least, back on top of the running back depth chart. After a long year on the sidelines with a knee injury, a year in which he was probably the most-asked-about player on the team (as in, "When is Brown coming back?"), Brown finally is back.
But he's not the same back you saw before.
When we last saw Brown, he was a converted running back learning the position. His running style was powerful and fast, but he was more of an upright runner and likened himself to a guy "running blind," even if he did net 533 rushing yards as a sophomore.
This spring, U of L offensive coordinator Shawn Watson says Brown will display a more polished running style. And while the return of 2012 leading rusher Senorise Perry from an injury and a deep stable of backs means that Brown may be far from the lone feature back in the U of L backfield, his presence could mean punishment for opposing defenses.
"He's done a great job of coming back and rehabbing," Watson said. "By the end of the season last year he was back to full form. By that time we obviously had played a whole season and were going to redshirt him, but we could see during bowl practices that he was beginning to develop tailback instincts.
"When he was transitioning from quarterback in 2011 he was really finding his way, figuring out how a tailback runs. He's a natural runner because of his background. . . . He's a physical, north-south runner, a punishing runner. I'll never forget the hit he had on the defensive tackle from North Carolina. He can lower his pads and be a forceful runner. During bowl practice, you could see he was developing as a physical runner."
But Brown himself says the biggest change in his game isn't physical, but mental. In his time on the sidelines, he's had the opportunity to study the position, and not just his own position, but the overall offense. He's counting on that making him more effective when he gets back onto the field.
Brown's power and short-yardage ability is something the Cardinals missed last season. And that's not all. Watson said his return means a return of the "WildCard" direct snap package to the offense.
But Brown is hoping to be more than a short-yardage back, though he says he's ready to accept his role in a multi-faceted running scheme
"I've been working hard, gaining some pounds, getting back into the rotation, being physical," Brown said. "That's what I thrive on. We've got other backs, Corvin (Lamb) and Senoise who are very elusive and make guys miss. I thrive on being the power back, running down hill, punishing the defense. That's my role in the running back room, to be a powerful, downhill runner."
Now that he has finished an uphill health battle, Brown said he's more than ready to be back on a football field. He said his teammates and former U of L running back Bilal Powell were some of the most supportive voices he got through the long season away from competition. He's also been busy in the classroom. He'll graduate with a degree in communications this summer, in 3 1/2 years, and will pick up an accounting major along with that.
As he looks across the offense, Brown, says he's looking forward to seeing how it comes together.
"Teddy (Bridgewater) has been doing a great job, the wideouts, and offensive line and backs," Brown said. "Watching last season and everything come together, it was great and exciting, but I'm ready to be able to get out and do my part. The main thing is we've found our identity. We know who we are right now."
And after a year of looking at his new position from the outside, Brown knows where he wants to go.