Freshman RB Brown impressive vs. ODU; makes case for more touches

By Scott Ratcliffe

Xavier Brown led Virginia in rushing Saturday against Old Dominion. (Photos by Michael Bruder)

After struggling to move the ball in last week’s deflating loss at Illinois, the Virginia offense got a much-needed spark from first-year running back Xavier Brown on Saturday against Old Dominion.

Playing in just his third collegiate contest, the 5-foot-9, 186-pound true freshman from Lexington, Ky., was impressive, leading the Cavaliers in rushing with 88 yards on just nine carries. His longest carry on the day, a 38-yarder, was a season high for all UVA running backs.

Several of Brown’s runs came at crucial moments in the tightly contested affair, and he showed that although he may not be the biggest guy on the field, he displayed an ability to fight for extra yardage when the team needed it most.

His first carry of the day came on the first play of UVA’s second drive of the game, after the Cavaliers went 12 plays on the opening march, but punted the ball away after gaining just 35 yards in over four minutes. Brown’s 38-yard tote got the offense going, and sparked the game’s only touchdown for the Hoos.

Across its following eight possessions, Virginia punted three times and fumbled three times, picking up just three points along the way. Brown was then reinjected into the offense with UVA ahead 10-7 early in the fourth quarter, and he again made some big plays that led to another Wahoo field goal. On the drive, Brown had four carries for 27 yards, adding a crucial 17-yard pickup on the following series.

Coming into the season, it didn’t look like Brown would have a ton of opportunities to make an impact with so many capable options in the UVA backfield. Senior Perris Jones beat out Mike Hollins for the starting job, but the Wahoos also had Amaad Foston, Ronnie Walker Jr. and Miami transfer Cody Brown (when healthy) to turn to, all of which had experience at the college level.

Xavier Brown made a splash in the spring and kept improving into the summer and fall camp, however, and with injuries throughout the running backs room, he has found himself in a position to contribute. Saturday, he proved that he certainly belongs in the conversation moving forward.

For Brown, he’s just happy to be in the mix, and is fine with absorbing as much knowledge as he can now that he’s getting his feet wet.

“I’m learning from the older guys. I got Mike, Perris, Cody and Ronnie in front of me,” said Brown. “So I’m learning from all of them and coaches with all their backgrounds and linebackers helps me get up to speed a lot.”

Brown, the 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year in his home state of Kentucky, led Lexington Christian to a 14-1 record and an appearance in the state championship game, rushing for 1,511 yards — on just 117 carries — and 22 touchdowns, adding 16 receptions for another 398 and six more trips to the end zone.

UVA head coach Tony Elliott and OC Des Kitchings had to be overly content with Brown’s production on Saturday, and should now factor him into the rotation more, especially after losing Foston, a promising sophomore, to injury prior to the season.

“Xavier found some big plays, and what you saw is that the stage is not too bright for him as a first-year guy, and that he’s ready for the moment,” Elliott said. “Now he’s got some growth, you talk about the turnover down there when we had that sack-fumble, as a young running back that comes out and protects that edge for his quarterback.

“He’s got some areas to grow, but the way that he’s running the football, he’s putting pressure on all the other guys in the room. And as I told him in the locker room afterwards, I’m not a discriminator of age or whatever it may be — if you’re the best guy, you’re the best guy. And right now he’s running with the most tenacity out of all the guys.”

Kitchings was also happy with Brown’s play in the 16-14 win, and hopes to see more of the same from the young back as the season progresses.

“We got a good glimpse of Xavier Brown out there. I’m glad we had him today,” said Kitchings. “He made a couple of explosive plays for us. The kid is just totally committed. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s soaking in information. He’s got some ability, right? So, he’s got to continue to build on that with him.”

Jones and Hollins both saw a healthy number of touches Saturday as well — Jones had 56 yards on 11 carries, while Hollins added 29 yards on his eight carries and the Cavaliers’ only touchdown.

With all that said, Brown made the most of his chances, averaging 9.8 yards a pop, and did a great job of picking up extra chunks of yardage after first contact. More importantly, the Hoos have a chance to build on Saturday’s success in Friday night’s ACC opener at Syracuse. Brown has definitely made a strong case for more playing time, and he believes that coming together and surviving against the Monarchs will only pay dividends moving forward, whether he’s No. 1 on the depth chart or No. 5.

“This is going to give us a lot of motivation,” Brown said after the win. “We know we have a lot of things to work on, but I know offensively we know the things that we can do and that’s just going to help us get better next week.”

 

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