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Carlos Brown Finds His Answers

At a certain point he had to get tired of it.

Nothing seemed to be going right. Despite racking up mind bending rushing numbers as a high school all-star in Georgia, Carlos Brown couldn't buy a break. Questions kept being asked. Questions to which he had no answers. "Why haven't you been able to break out?" "What do you think you need to do to get more playing time?" "You were a big shot tailback, why aren't you playing?" Those questions had to wear on Carlos, especially when he didn't have any answers to give.

After committing to Michigan in December of 2005, seemingly out of the blue, he graduated from high school early and enrolled at Michigan before he'd even gone to his own prom. A southern boy leaving Georgia in the middle of January to come to Michigan so he could take part in spring practice. To say it was unheard of doesn't do it justice.

Despite the fierce winter, being a stranger in a strange land, and learning things at a rate unprecedented in his young life, Brown was the star of spring practice. His speed around the corners was fantastic. As a high school senior he was probably the fastest guy on Michigan's team. Michigan, not some directional city school, Michigan. Despite the shocking changes in his life there was validation. His name was in the papers. He was being spoken of as the next big threat back in a long line of Wolverine draft picks. If he could've picked a moment in his life to that point to live over and over again, he'd have picked the spring game where he busted an 82 yarder before a enthralled crowd. The homesickness, the loneliness, the changes were all of a sudden worth it.

Then fall practice began. After a summer in the weight room all of a sudden he wasn't just stuck behind Hart and Grady, a new guy, Brandon Minor appeared in front of him. People were falling all over themselves to talk about him. Kirk Herbstreit picked Minor to be the Big Ten freshman of the year. He hadn't enrolled early. He hadn't put in the time. Hell, Carlos probably barely knew the guy at that point, but all the momentum he'd gathered by enrolling early was all of a sudden gone.

As the season wore on it was apparent Brown was the odd man out. Grady and Minor got the bulk of the carries to spell Hart. Actually they got all the carries. Carlos was left on kick off duties. Left watching his friends revel in the spotlight that was supposed to be his. It wasn't that he didn't want the best for Kevin and Brandon, but if he'd wanted to ride the pine he wouldn't be who he was. He didn't leave Georgia to sit in the middle of winter hell to watch his buddies run the football.

Then the coaches came to him. "How bout corner?" they asked. "Why?" I'm sure he responded. I'm sure they told him they wanted to get him on the field. I'm sure they told him he'd see the most time there. I'm sure they told him he could help the team the most on defense.

I'm sure he was shocked by this.

His senior year of high school he amassed 2,103 all-purpose yards (1,284 rushing, 567 returning, 113 receiving and 139 passing). He was an offensive star out of high school. He wasn't supposed to be playing defense. They designed ways to get him the ball in Georgia, and now the people who promised him a shot to star at Michigan were telling him he needed to switch sides just to see the field.

Then again, maybe it wasn't such a shock. When Brown saw the field he wasn't anything special. Undersized at a generous 6'0" and 205, he looked timid on the field when he'd looked so sure in practice. Making things more difficult, his buddies had simply passed him up. Minor had busted off a break away, 40 plus touchdown run in a tight conference game. Grady was a wrecking ball in a helmet on short yardage. Brown was supposed to be the speed guy. The change of pace. When Minor showed speed no one knew he had in a game situation, all of a sudden the advantage he thought he had wasn't there anymore.

I'm not sure, but perhaps that's why Carlos flirted not-so-privately with transferring. The advantages he had were seemingly gone. The playing time he'd been promised had been given to others. And now he was trying to figure out how the career he thought he was going to have was going to take place.

Then a string of improbable events occurred that kept him in Ann Arbor. Spring and fall practice for the Wolverines were somewhat unimpressive. Brown was as good or better than any of his fellow running backs and the lack of a standout put him back in the rotation. Then Kevin Grady went down with a torn ACL. All of a sudden the depth that kept him off the field suddenly had been diminished. Brown passed on the opportunity to transfer and rededicated himself to the program.

Again, nothing seemed to go his way. Despite coaches raving about his work during fall practice, Brown busted his hand before the season's first snap. Again, all that momentum was gone. When Brown did see the field, nothing went right. Against Oregon he fumbled. Against Notre Dame he couldn't hold onto the ball. How could he? His firggin hand was wrapped like a mummy that ran out of SPF 45. He wasn't gaining yards. He was tentative. None of the explosion he'd shown was apparent in his steps.

Then came Purdue. Called into action on the second play of the second half, Brown literally found his stride. Where previously he'd be yanked when he failed to pick up more than a yard, the coaching staff had no choice but to leave him in with both Hart and Minor sidelined. He seemed to feed off of this knowledge. Grow stronger knowing that even if he fumbled, he was the team's best running back available. In the second half he got the ball thirteen times, turning two of those carries into touchdowns, one of the spectacular 29 yard variety. Carlos exited the game halfway into the fourth with a 5.1/carry average, 66 yards, 2 TDs, and confidence he hadn't felt since high school.

More than likely he was headed back down the depth chart when Hart was cleared to play on Saturday, but he'd shown what he could do. He would have as good a chance as anyone to claim the starting job the following fall, and he knew it.

Then all of a sudden it wasn't about next year. It was about now. Hart's injury got better, but not better enough for him to play. Minor was still dinged and nowhere near 100%. Brown was going to make his first collegiate start against a viscous Illini defense and behind a suspect offensive line.

None of it mattered. When Brown touched the field he was a difference maker. All of a sudden the linemen in the backfield didn't matter to him. Two games earlier he would've been tackled from behind, but underneath the burning glow of the Champaign halogens he was a different man. His cuts were crisp. His acceleration was without doubt or fear. Arm tackles that would've brought him down a month before bounced off his churning legs like bb's off a ship's hull.

He knew this was the chance he'd begged for and dammit, nothing was stopping him today. For every time the Illini defense managed to stop him for a single yard Brown responded with a 6 yard gain the next carry. With the game tied at 17 he broke off his longest run of the night (30 yards) to bring Michigan within sight of the endzone, where only a Mallett interception could keep him out of the endzone. When the night ended, Brown had compiled 113 yards on the ground, becoming the only running back to reach the century mark against Illinois all season.

He ran with a purpose and a fire only he has known before. Now we all know it is there and the appetite has been whetted for his next performance. If Hart is unable to perform against Minnesota every Michigan fan will want to see if Carlos Brown can make it two straight games with 100 yards. Whether he can keep the 100 yard streak for Michigan runners alive. Whether he can take being a number one back, if only in Mike Hart's absence for a game, because Mike Hart's absence becomes permanent at the end of this season.

Brown will probably begin to get tired of these questions: "How come it took so long to see `the real' Carlos Brown?" "Did you do something different in the Illinois game?" "How have you kept your mental focus?" "Do you think you'll be the No. 2 guy next year or the No. 1?" He'll get tired of answering questions off the field he thought he'd answered on it.

But these questions will wear on him a lot less now that he finally has an answer to them.