ATHENS – When Marlon Brown — a Parade All-American, Tennessee’s “Mr. Football” and scout.com’s No. 2 wide-receiver prospect in the nation — signed with Georgia in 2009, the recruiting world overreacted, as it tends to do.
The nationally televised signing ceremony at Brown’s high school in Memphis spawned celebration in Athens and protestation in Knoxville. Famously, Lane Kiffin, then Tennessee’s coach, claimed Brown would have signed with the Vols if not for his grandmother’s insistence that he go to Georgia.
In a recruiting class that brought a number of highly touted prospects to the Bulldogs — quarterback Aaron Murray, tight end Orson Charles, cornerback Branden Smith and tailback Washaun Ealey among them — none garnered more attention at the time than Brown.
Three years, just 28 catches and several injuries later, Brown prepares for his senior season.
“Crazy,” he said. “I’m thinking back to my freshman year, and I’m like, ‘That was just yesterday.’ It’s gone by real fast. My last year, I’m going to try to have a good season.”
To this point, his career has provided a cautionary tale about the excesses of recruiting hype. But it also has provided an example of a young player showing patience and perspective, continuing to believe in himself and what he is yet to do.
“I’m not going to say I’m satisfied,” Brown said, “because I’m not done yet.”
As a freshman at UGA, the considerable transition from a small private high school — Harding Academy — to the SEC limited him to two catches in eight games (no starts).
As a sophomore, he was named the Bulldogs’ most improved offensive player despite catching only 11 passes in 12 games (no starts).
As a junior last season, he appeared primed for a breakthrough until an ankle injury — suffered shortly before the start of the season — lingered for much of the fall. He wound up playing in 12 games, starting five and catching 15 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns. One of the touchdowns came early in the fourth quarter of a 19-10, SEC East-clinching victory over Kentucky, when Brown caught a third-and-7 throw from Murray to stretch the Bulldogs’ lead from a tenuous 12-10.
Brown considers that the biggest play of his college career so far, despite one peculiarity about it: He ran the wrong route.
“But I saw Murray, and he saw me,” Brown said. “So it was a touchdown.”
On Georgia’s current depth chart, Brown is listed as the starting split end. He is being counted on to bolster a receivers group thinned by the part-time move of Malcolm Mitchell to cornerback.
“Every year, Marlon progressively gets better,” said starting flanker Tavarres King, recruited one year before Brown and also entering his final season. “He’s going to have a tremendous year.
“When he got here, he looked like a basketball player. [He starred in that sport in high school, too.] Now, he looks like a receiver. It’s crazy, how much he’s changed and how much he’s grown.”
Brown, 6-foot-5 and 222 pounds, up 22 pounds from his listed weight as a freshman, has gotten off to a big start in preseason practice. He caught six passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ first scrimmage. The catch is whether he can carry the success into the season.
“Every camp, he’s looked awesome, and he just gets nagging injuries to set him back,” Murray said. “But when Marlon is 100 percent, he’s a huge threat.”
Brown battled a shoulder injury in 2010, but his most frustrating injury was last year’s sprained ligaments in his left ankle.
“It happened the last day of [preseason] camp — the very last play of camp, actually,” Brown said. “I was, like, ‘not again, not another little nagging injury that is going to hold me back from being 100 percent and having a good season.’”
It was mid-November, he said, before the ankle felt normal again.
His biggest hope for this season is health from start to finish.
“I just want to be a dependable guy in my last year here,” he said. “… And make big plays for my team.”
As Brown prepares for his senior season, a new class of highly touted recruits begins the college experience — part of the cycle of college football. Brown has one piece of advice for the newcomers as they transition from the loud hype of the recruiting process to their new reality.
“Really, just ignore the noise,” he said. “… You got to come in and just humble yourself.”
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