Switch to wide receiver has Brown, Apollo-Ridge offense thriving
Apollo-Ridge's Duane Brown had a choice when he was medically cleared from knee surgery to return to the football field.
“I said to him, ‘What do you want to do? Where do you want to play?' ” Vikings coach John Skiba said.
Pick a position, any position.
The senior standout normally would answer “all of the above” to such a question because he is so versatile and has played numerous positions over the past four seasons.
But Brown answered succinctly.
“He says, ‘Wide receiver,' ” Skiba said. “He didn't hesitate. That's where he felt comfortable, and that kind of kept him out of the middle (of the field).”
The move from running back to wideout has bolstered Apollo-Ridge (7-3), allowing other skill players to contribute and the offense to become more balanced.
That recipe will have to continue Friday night when the Vikings face Keystone Oaks (8-1) in their WPIAL Class 3A playoff opener at Dormont Stadium.
“With Duane's move to more of a pass-catching threat, it has opened things up for other players to explode on the scene,” Skiba said.
Brown has shined at receiver, making a team-high 30 receptions for 570 yards and 12 touchdowns in six games since returning from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. The offseason injury — and expedited five-month recovery — slowed his progress, but he is finding his stride. He was the Valley News Dispatch Offensive Player of the Year last season, mainly as a tailback.
“Touchdown Brown” has 18 touchdowns since returning and has upped his career total to 86.
Brown played only seven games last season — he missed three because of a concussion — but had 189 carries. He finished with 18 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
But with teams focused on Brown, players such as seniors Brett Coleman, Danny Orkwis and Jeremy Dibernardo have made big plays. And junior quarterback Kyle Fitzroy has a dual-threat with Brown: as a go-to target in the slot or deep down field, or as a decoy.
“Any time a team has an athlete with his ability, and many don't, it takes a couple other guys out of the box because teams are focused on him,” Burrell senior quarterback Max Garda said. “It allows other guys to make plays, and Apollo-Ridge has other guys.”
Fitzroy is having a career season, with 1,834 yards and 23 touchdowns. Coleman has rushed for the most yards on the team (644) and has seven touchdowns.
“Duane has not been a spoiled brat demanding the ball, either,” Skiba said. “He's let the game come to him, and he's enjoyed watching his teammates have their time in the spotlight.”
In the Allegheny Conference finale against Valley, a 35-12 win for Apollo-Ridge, Brown did not score a touchdown. But Orkwis scored three times, with two a direct result of defenders leaning on Brown's routes.
While Valley chased Brown around the field in “bracket coverage,” Fitzroy found other receivers wide open. Four players — Orkwis, senior Daylon Wells, Dibernardo and Coleman — have at least 13 receptions.
Brown still has lined up at quarterback and tailback and has produced a pair of 100-yard rushing games while scoring six times on the ground. He also has a pair of 150-plus-yard receiving games.
“He's a special athlete that, even when bracketed, comes up with catches that other guys can't make,” Skiba said. “Or even get open to attempt to catch. And this is on a knee that still is rebuilding.
“His ceiling hasn't been met yet.”
Skiba asked people around the team to be patient with Brown's comeback. He longs to see No. 5 back to a full capacity.
“Believe me, its hard not giving him the ball every play and standing back and saying, let's watch the show,” Skiba said. “We have sets where I have guys that I trust to rest him on offense. I ask him, ‘Are you good to go?' And he's been mature enough to say yes or no and get himself back in.”
Skiba noted that Brown, for his career, has more than 3,000 yards rushing, 1,200 yards receiving and 1,000 yards passing.
“Crazy stuff for a kid from Apollo-Ridge,” Skiba said.
Brown could have a future as a slot receiver. He has committed to play at Robert Morris. He might be the next standout pass-catcher from the A-K Valley at a time when the position seems to be fruitful.
Several local players have gone on to become big-play receivers at the college level, including Case Western's Brendan Lynch (Freeport), Clarion's Matt Lehman (Burrell) and Thiel's DeShawon Bracy (Kiski Area) and Eugene Bailey (Valley). The latter two are freshmen this season.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor for the Valley News Dispatch edition of the Tribune-Review. Reach him at email@example.com.