Brown makes shift to Illini offensive line

Brown makes shift to Illini offensive line

CHAMPAIGN — Rod Smith had plenty of reasons to want Verdis Brown to make the switch from defensive tackle to offensive line.

The Illini offensive line has had depth problems for several years and this upcoming season was going to be no different. There's also the matter of Brown being an absolute mauler at 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds. And don't forget the Chicago native was recruited by a multitude of high-major programs as a consensus four-star offensive lineman.

So Smith, Illinois' second-year offensive coordinator, stayed in Brown's ear.

"He's an o-lineman at heart is what he is," Smith said. "I think he wanted to play d-lineman, but the reality is he's an o-lineman. He's in his right spot where he needs to be, and he just needs to keep developing. He's a big, strong physical kid. He just needs to learn to play that way all the time."

The decision to flip positions, though, was one Brown ultimately made himself. He spent his true freshman season in what Illinois coach Lovie Smith deemed an "academic redshirt" while working at the position of his choosing on the Illini defensive line. The redshirt year was a learning experience — and a challenge.

"It taught me a lot," Brown said. "Just because you go through a hard time in life doesn't mean it's over. You've just got to keep grinding and just remain focused.

"It was a challenging process. I was more mentally tough than I thought I was. A lot of kids would have probably quit and gave up, but you've got to remain focused."

Some further self-reflection this spring sparked Brown to bring up a position switch with his coaches.

"I didn't see myself progressing as fast as the other d-linemen," Brown said. "I had a sit-down with myself and thought about it and realized I'd probably be a better o-lineman. ... You've just got to be honest with yourself. I saw myself going over practice looking at the other d-linemen and how they were moving and how fast they were picking it up. I saw myself slowly moving forward and realized this is probably not it."

Brown wasn't nervous about broaching the idea of a position switch with the Illinois coaches. For one, he knew how much Rod Smith wanted him on the offensive line. It also wasn't like the idea came out of nowhere.

"As everyone knows, that was the big elephant in the room," Brown said. "Would Verdis stay on defense or would he go to offense? Coach Rod Smith came and told me, 'When are you going to come over to the offensive side?' I was like, 'Coach, I'm never coming over.' Turns out I did."

That Brown initiated the discussion to move to the offensive line stood out to both Rod Smith and first-year Illinois offensive line coach Bob McClain. The latter said it was Brown's maturity and unselfish nature coming to the forefront.

"It shows you he's a team player," Rod Smith added. "He's a guy that wants to do whatever he can to help his team. I think he came to the rationalization of, 'OK, can I help the team better on offense or can I help them better on defense?' I think when he sat down and took a long, hard look at it and reflected and said, 'I've got a better shot at this on offense.'"

Brown has worked plenty with McClain since making the move in the penultimate full week on Illinois' spring practices. He's also received help from Kendrick Green, who made the same position switch as Brown last summer.

"Kendrick, he's been helping me a lot understanding the guard position," Brown said. "He's been teaching me the proper footwork and all and even went over a couple plays with me. Right now I'm just trying to keep my head in the playbook and learn as much as I can — especially from the starters."

Brown has also easily clicked with McClain.

"I love Bob," he said. "That's my guy. He's a cool guy. He doesn't really yell a lot. That's what I like. He takes his time. I can definitely go up to Bob and ask him any question about o-line. He's going to literally walk me through step by step."

McClain is working with two defensive line converts this spring on the offensive line. Danville grad Julian Pearl bulked up in the offseason and made the move from defensive end to offensive tackle.

"You've got to be a little more patient with them and understand this is new to them," McClain said. "What I see in both of them is I see potential and talent. That's encouraging.

"The technique is completely different with what you're doing on d-line, and obviously you've got to learn the plays. It's all new to them."

Brown's willingness to ask questions and track down McClain for some individual instruction has helped him jumpstart his positional transformation. Saturday's spring game provided needed experience in more game-like situations.

"He's a very conscientious kid," McClain said. "He's always coming up wanting to learn extra and wanting to spend extra time learning. Obviously, he's only been there a couple days and he's trying to learn what's going on, but he's really doing a good job of it because he's going the extra mile and it's important to him."

Flipping the switch

Verdis Brown isn't the first Illinois football player to switch positions during their time with the Illini. Here are five other recent examples:

KENDRICK GREEN

One of Brown's current teammates, the Peoria native originally came to Illinois as a defensive lineman, but became a starting offensive lineman for the 2018 season and looks to do the same in 2019.

STEVE HULL

Played first three seasons as a defensive back before moving to receiver in 2013. He responded with 993 receiving yards, the ninth-best season in school history, to go along with seven TD catches.

KELVIN HAYDEN

The Illini's top receiver in 2003 (52 catches for 592 yards) moved to cornerback in 2004 and led Ron Turner's final team with four interceptions, parlaying that skill into a nine-year NFL career.

WALTER YOUNG

Originally signed to play quarterback, the Rich East product became a steady and dependable receiver with the Illini from 1999 to 2002. He is fourth all-time at Illinois with 2,382 receiving yards.

CHRISTIAN MORTON

Highly-touted quarterback out of Riverview Gardens (Mo.), Morton developed into a key return man and cornerback, particularly during the 2001 season that saw the Illini win a Big Ten title.

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