When you see ‘Big E’ coming, best get the hell out of the way

By Jerry Ratcliffe

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One of the first guys Al Groh went to see when he was named Virginia’s head football coach was Elton Brown down at Hampton High School.

Brown had played at Heritage High before getting into a little trouble and moving over to Hampton. Nevertheless, he was a strong, mobile, 6-foot-5, 338-pound offensive lineman. Those don’t come around every day in high school.

“Elton was a very likeable kid,” Groh said in a recent interview. “He clearly was accountable and ambitious. Nobody else was coming around to see him.”

Groh, who had left the head coaching job with the New York Jets to return to his alma mater, will never forget what Brown told him on that visit to Hampton.

“He said, ‘Coach, if you take a chance on me, I promise you that you won’t be sorry.’”

Brown delivered. Groh said that “Big E,” as Brown became to be called, didn’t break his promise. In fact, Brown became a consensus All-American offensive guard his senior year in 2004, first-team All-ACC, and a two-time Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner.

“Coach Groh took a chance and gave me an opportunity, so I felt like I owed it to him, the fans, and every Cavalier that had come before me to be the best person I could be. I carried that on my shoulders,” Brown said during a recent appearance on ‘The Jerry Ratcliffe Show’ (click on this link to listen to the Elton Brown segment).

“As big as Elton was, what made him so good was his in-tight blocking, where he was so explosive,” Groh said. “On the perimeter, he could adjust to defenders. Big, thick guys like him don’t always have that manuveurability.”

What some fans may not realize is that when Virginia called a sweep or a screen pass that required Brown to pull and lead the blocking on the perimeter, the big guard had to be making instant decisions on what defender to mow down in order for the play to be successful.

The most memorable of those came against No. 18 Maryland late in the 2002 season (Brown’s sophomore campaign) in Scott Stadium.

Groh recalled that Virginia had strung together six consecutive wins during the season but hit a back-to-back losing skid at unranked Georgia Tech, and then at No. 19 Penn State. The Cavaliers bounced back with a home win against No. 20 NC State and QB Phillip Rivers before Maryland came to Charlottesville.

“We called a screen pass to Wali Lundy in front of the Maryland bench,” Groh said, unable to tell the tale without some serious laughter. “Elton gets out in front of the screen. He blows this guy up and continues downfield until he finds another one and does the same thing to the next guy.”

Brown said that may have been his favorite play of his career.

“It was third-and-27,” Big E said. “I think everybody in the stadium knew we were going to run a screen. Our center pulled too, and cut down a linebacker, and I knew this thing could go. We could score on this. I saw a defensive back, hit him (more like buried him), then a second DB showed up and I thought I might as well as hit him too.”

This happened with regularity, maybe not to quite that extreme, but Virginia fans were thrilled every time they saw Brown leading a play on the perimeter.

“He was deadly out there,” Groh said. “Nobody on defense wanted anything to do with him. He had remarkable ability, especially for a guy his size.”

No one was surprised when Brown won all those accolades his final season, least of all Groh and UVA offensive line coach Ron Prince.

“The bodies on the ground won him that award,” Groh said.

Yes, indeed.

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