Demond Brown's time at Navy had finally come — or so it seemed.
With the departure of senior slotbacks Gee Gee Greene, Bo Snelson and John Howell after last season, Brown had emerged from the competition this spring as a starter for one of the two coveted slotback spots. It was an impressive accomplishment for Brown, who had grown up in Annapolis but had never been to a game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium until he was being recruited.
Then, two days into preseason practice, Brown was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
"At the time I was definitely frustrated. I had been working hard all spring and summer," Brown recalled after practice Monday. "You always want to stay humble, because anything can happen. No matter if you are on top of the world, you can get knocked off fast."
Heading into Saturday's game at Duke, Brown hasn't made it back all the way in terms of regaining the starting position, but the 5-foot-9, 191-pound sophomore appears to be solidly in the rotation among the half-dozen or so slotbacks assistant coach Danny O'Rourke calls on during games.
A 38-yard touchdown run in last week's 28-10 home victory over rival Air Force certainly helped Brown's cause. While he received a perfect pitch from Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds to give him space to run, Brown's speed was apparent as he raced down the sideline.
"It felt great," Brown said of his first collegiate touchdown, which put the Midshipmen ahead 14-10 early in the second half. "This was my career highlight [playing football] because of the stage."
It is a stage on which Brown never thought he would be playing.
When Navy started recruiting him at Annapolis High and later at Old Mill, where he spent his senior year, he recalled being "more shocked because people where I'm from usually don't come to the Naval Academy. It turned out to be a great opportunity."
Tansala Brown, whose family's home was a 10-minute ride to the academy, wasn't surprised that the middle of her three children would eventually wind up going to Navy.
"He's always been the type of young man who wanted a lot out of life," she said.
Brown's parents have always stressed the importance of education. He had a 4.4 grade-point average in high school — the first three years spent in the International Baccalaureate program at Annapolis High — and he was recruited by a number of strong academic schools, eventually picking Navy over Colgate and Bucknell.
The importance of education was not the only thing Brown learned growing up. While he is one of three siblings, Brown's family grew exponentially when his parents took in seven of their nieces and nephews. Brown's parents eventually moved into a six-bedroom home in Glen Burnie.
Tansala Brown's sister had died at age 28, leaving their mother to raise her three children. When their mother died in 1998, the then teenage children came to live with Tansala Brown and her husband, Demond Sr. Four others came when Tansala Brown's brother "got into trouble."
If anything, it has allowed Demond Brown to understand what it's like to be part of a large, extended family, much like he has now in sharing the load at slotback with a group that Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has called the deepest and most talented of any postion on the team.
"You need to make the best of your opportunities," Brown said. "It's so random, I just go in the game and I'm either the pitch back or the blocking back. I don't mind being either. My biggest thing is I just want to win. Like Air force, I'm glad I scored, but I would have been happy if anybody scored."
Asked after a practice Monday how difficult it is to figure out when to use one of his slotbacks for a certain play, Niumatalolo pointed to O'Rourke standing nearby. "I yell at that guy," Niumatalolo joked. "If one guy messes up, 'Why do you have that guy in there? You should have had so-and-so in there.'"
Earlier in the season, Brown saw others take advantage of the opportunities they were given. Senior Darius Staten rushed for a career-high 106 yards on nine carries in the opener against Indiana after playing behind Greene and others his first three years. Sophomore DeBrandon Sanders rushed for 68 yards on five carries against Indiana after not playing as a plebe.
But Brown, still hampered by the hamstring injury, started slowly. He didn't play in the opener and then had two carries against Delaware, losing yardage on both plays. After ripping off a 21-yard run in a loss at Western Kentucky two weeks ago, Brown got another chance against Air Force.
"The big thing is, he has all the tools, he just needs confidence," Niumatalolo said. "He got hurt and that set him back. But he just works and works and doesn't say a word. It's been nice to see him finally healthy. That run he did Saturday didn't surprise me. When he's healthy, he's a heckuva back."
Said O'Rourke, "He's a special, special kid. He's a hard worker. He's a good player. He's been hurt, but now he's been feeling better and he's been running better. He's hard on himself. He beats himself up worse than I do sometimes."
As Tansala Brown watched from the grassy hill behind the north end zone last week, surrounded by more than two dozen family members and friends, she thought about how proud she was to be the mother of a Midshipman.
No matter how close the family lived to the academy, it seemed a world away. Seeing her son score a touchdown against Air Force, Tansala Brown started to cry just as she did when he first dressed for a game last year.
"I had never been in the stadium, and I grew up in Annapolis," she said. "I can't tell you how excited my husband is, growing up in Annapolis, to see our son doing what he is doing. You can't imagine how we feel. All of my sister's kids and brother's kids are doing great. But to see one of my own doing what he's doing, it's outstanding."
NAVY (3-1) @ DUKE (3-2)
When: Saturday 12:30 p.m.
Site: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, N.C.
TV: Raycom Sports, ACC Network
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Navy leads 20-14-5
Last meeting: Duke won, 34-31, on Oct. 19, 2010 in Annapolis
Navy offense vs. Duke defense: After a shaky first half, sophonore quarterback Keenan Reynolds settled down and led the Midshipmen to a 28-10 win over service academy rival Air Force in Annapolis last week. Weather could play a factor this week, and Reynolds must be sure-handed in the rain while running the triple-option. The Blue Devils are better against the run than any team Navy has faced but still allow more than 167 yards a game. The Midshipmen have been strong running outside with Reynolds and a slew of slotbacks, but need to establish fullbacks Chris Swain and Noah Copeland more than they have this season. Some of that has to do with replacing two starters on the offensive line. The Blue Devils had more than a week to prepare for the triple option, and already faced it when they played Georgia Tech earlier in the season. But based on the way Duke was gashed by the Yellow Jackets in a 38-14 defeat, facing another team running the triple option might not be a welcome sight.
Navy defense vs. Duke offense: The Midshipmen had trouble getting off the field last week in the first half against Air Force and during the second half the previous week against Western Kentucky, but much of that had to do with the offense staying on for more than a three-and-out. Navy's defense improved markedly last week, forcing three straight turnovers in one stretch in the second half. Duke redshirt junior Brandon Connette is ranked right behind Heisman Trophy candidates Jameis Winston of Florida State and Tajh Boyd of Clemson among ACC quarterbacks in many offensive categories, and senior Anthony Boone could also be ready to play after missing some time with an injury. Connette is the type of dual threat quarterback that has given the Midshipmen trouble in the past.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun