Sept. 15, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
The initial glimpse of his possibilities came on the last play of the first quarter. That is when, after getting blocked and while lying on the ground, 'Cat defensive end Vince Browne reached up and pulled down Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown for a four-yard sack. Another, not as glamorous, came early in the second quarter. That is when, with the Redbirds looking to convert a third-and-two, he combined with Kevin Watt to stop Ashton Leggett for no gain.
He was a linebacker in high school and then, even after his conversion to defensive end, he was asked to do nothing but rush the passer as a redshirt freshman. Last year, as a sophomore, he climbed a steep learning curve when asked to be an every down performer. But a month ago, just before the 'Cats departed for Kenosha, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz hopefully suggested that this could be the season Browne put his considerable skills together and emerged as the total package. Is that happening?
"I think so," Hankwitz said this week. "It's important to him. He's become more of a student of the game. He's asking more questions. So we're really pleased with his attitude and his progress that way, and I think that's leading to better performances."
Just how big a transition is it going from linebacker to end?
"There's obviously more of a physical element when you're in a three-point stance because you have the big (butts) in front of you. You're in smash-mouth mode (if you're on a tackle) or, if you're on a tight end, you've got to focus on him blocking you. It's different when you're out here (as a linebacker) and you don't have that big threat coming to block you. So it is a big change. You're in the heavy traffic area where the big bodies are, where all the physical part of it is. You can't avoid it in that position. You've got to be a physical guy that attacks.
"Then the keys happen a little faster sometimes. When you're standing up out there, things happen later. You're not in the physical zone all the time. So, yeah, it's a transition. But we've had a lot of guys who've made that transition down through the years. Like we said (in the preseason). In the first year, he didn't worry about it too much. He just rushed the passer. In the second year, all of a sudden he had to (worry about the keys) and it was kind of an eye opener. Now he's starting to understand that he can do better things and become a better player, and he is and hopefully it continues."
Since he's so driven to succeed, has the transition been frustrating for him?
"Because he has high expectations, yeah, there's been some frustration. So it's trying to get him to understand it's step-by-step. You just keep improving every day. If you keep working to improve, you get better and then you're frustration lowers. Part of it is just trusting what (defensive line) Coach (Marty) Long's telling him, that if he'll do it, it'll help him. I think he's developing that trust. It's a hard transition standing up to that and he didn't always understand what Coach Long was trying to get him to do and how it would help him. Now I think he is."
Sometimes you give the impression that you think he can be special. True?
"Because he plays with such great effort and he's got great passion and he wants to be good, it gives him a chance, and he runs really well. He's moving toward that. You know. You don't want to say, 'Yeah, the guy can be an All-American.' But we believe that he'll continue to improve, that he'll get better and better and better because of his attitude and his work ethic and how hard he plays."
A third glimpse of his possibilities came late in the second quarter. That is when he got a hurry on Brown, who threw a fluttering duck linebacker Quentin Davie picked off to set up the final 'Cat touchdown of the first half. The last came late in the third quarter. That is when, on third-and-three, he buried new Redbird quarterback Drew Kiel for a 12-yard loss and forced them to punt.
We ask Marty Long about Hankwitz's suggestion that Browne is more trusting of what he's taught and that he's acting on it. "The reason he had a better game this past game is that he came in toward the end of the week, he really focused on his keys, and it showed up in the game," Long says. "That gave him confidence to continue to play well. That's one of the values in our pyramid, trust. And not just trust in me. Trust in his keys, what he's seeing. He's a defensive lineman and where you get all your movements from is what those offensive linemen do in front of you. So if a guy goes down (the line), you're supposed to go down. If a guy comes out, you're supposed to go out. OK. He's trusting his keys now."
Has he adjusted enough that he's doing it instinctively?
"That's part of the problem. He was a linebacker before, so his eyes were constantly in the backfield. Now as a defensive lineman, your eyes have got to be on those linemen because they're right on you. All right. That tells you where to go, by feel and everything like that. I think he's a much better football player this week than he was last week."
We thought he was terrific Saturday.
"Yeah. Yeah. We just want to consistently prepare and consistently get better and by the end of the season, I'm hoping he's going to be a great football player."
Vince Browne, after providing those glimpses of his possibilities, ended his Saturday with three solo tackles and two assisted tackles and two quarterback hurries and a pair of sacks for 16 yards in losses. That was, by far, the best performance by any 'Cat defensive lineman and it prompted head coach Pat Fitzgerald to say, "I thought he played really well, I really did. That's encouraging. He's played a lot of football and to see a young man like him continue to improve is just encouraging. It's exciting to me."
So, as Hankwitz had hoped, is it finally coming together for Browne?
"It's been better," he says. "Obviously it's still not where I want it to be. But it has gone better. Last year was the first time I was asked to play first and second downs and then rush the passer on third down as well. This year it's been a little easier because I've done it before and I've developed a little bit more as a defensive end."
Can he explain the difficulty of the transition from linebacker to end, where even the three-point stance is new?
"It's completely opposite. You go from seeing the big picture and being able to diagnose what's going on and getting there to shrinking the picture down to the man in front of you and letting him take you to the ball. That's extremely difficult. . . It's tough to just focus on one guy. That's something I've gotten a little better at, but I need to keep improving."
Has he been frustrated during the transition?
"Yeah. Sure. There's always a little frustration because it's a new position. But you've got to keep plugging away, keep improving everyday."
"I've got a lot of areas. Just the fundamentals, the fundamentals of playing the line. Using my hands. Reading the line keys. Things like that."
Does a game like Saturday's help in the transition?
"It's good. It's good because. I don't know. I think it's things just start rolling, it's, 'All right, I can do this.' There's a little more confidence. It certainly was a little frustrating after Vanderbilt because I didn't have a whole lot of production. But, yeah. It lets me know I'm fine and I've just got to keep working and keep preparing and keep improving."
Is part of his recent improvement a result of trusting what he's being taught, as Hankwitz suggested.
"I agree. There's a lot of stuff that goes against your intuition. But it's just like Coach Hank says. It's trusting the technique and trusting what they're telling you to do. They've been around and they know what they're doing. So I've got to continue to trust."
What, for example, goes against his intuition?
"Like we talked about. Just reading the line key first and not peeking in the backfield and worrying about all the chaos going on back there. Just doing first things first, taking a good step and reading your line keys."
Was it a matter of him not believing what they were teaching?
"No. No. It's hard to explain. I certainly believed them. They've been around a long time. They've been doing this for a while now. It's just, in the heat of the battle, it's sometime difficult to get yourself to do that."
You revert to old habits instead?
"Exactly. That's exactly right."
And then, as Long said, is he trusting the keys as well as the teachings?
"Right. Right. It's sort of the same thing. That's what they're telling me to do."
And does he agree that this trust has played a role in his improvement?
"Yeah. That's playing the defense. That's making plays within the framework of the defense. That's doing my job and that's something I've got to get better at."
How, finally, has he stayed patient during this obviously trying transition?
"I don't know," Vince Browne says at last. "I just want to be the best football player I can. So I have to keep working."
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