Nothing can derail a season faster than losing a key player for the entire year just before or after the opening game.
East Carolina fans are only too aware of that painful fact thanks to the preseason injury that ended Kurt Benkert’s tenure as the Pirates’ starting quarterback only days before it was scheduled to begin last year.
Wednesday, for the second season in a row, ECU got another ill-timed dose of bad news when coach Scottie Montgomery announced that junior wide receiver Trevon Brown had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
The decision didn’t take anybody by surprise. It was an ominous sign at best that Brown was held out of last week’s opening night victory against Western Carolina because of an unspecified eligibility issue, presumably related to academics.
For many teams, the elimination of an explosive playmaker of Brown’s caliber would be a crippling blow to their offensive attack.
But not the Pirates.
Had Brown been a quarterback, an offensive lineman or a player at basically any other position on the field, his loss might have meant a major dropoff in talent and forced Montgomery and his staff into scramble mode.
Because he’s a wide receiver, by far the deepest position group on the roster, it will be much easier to plug in the next man up and go on without missing a beat.
This is not to downplay the kind of difference-maker Brown could have been for ECU this season. He was poised for a breakout season after catching 55 passes for 760 yards and eight touchdowns over his first two years as a Pirate.
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Wilmington native gave a glimpse of just how dangerous he could be when he caught a 75-yard touchdown strike on the first play of last April’s spring scrimmage — a performance that capped a spring in which he was named his team’s offensive MVP. But even with that success, Brown’s primary role was always going to be secondary to that of teammate Zay Jones.
In baseball terms, he was the protection in the batting order that prevents opponents from pitching around his team’s top home run threat. Or in this case, a luxury item on the opposite side of the field that discouraged defenses from paying too much attention to leading receiver Jones.
Quarterback Philip Nelson’s favorite target still managed to catch 10 balls for 180 yards and a touchdown without Brown in the lineup last week as part of an offense that amassed 52 points and nearly 700 yards.
Although the competition will increase exponentially over the coming weeks, starting with Saturday’s in-state rivalry game against N.C. State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, there are any number of other candidates capable of filling the role of Sundance Kid to Jones’ Butch Cassidy.
Junior Quay Johnson and senior Jimmy Williams are both proven commodities. Sophomore Terrell Green is a big target at 6-4 while redshirt freshman Deondre Farrier got off to promising start with his first two career receptions against Western Carolina. There’s also hope that another productive veteran, senior Davon Grayson, may also be healthy enough to return soon.
If all else fails, jack-of-all-trades James Summers could potentially step in to fill the void.
Clearly, ECU has options to help make the best of an unfortunate situation. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Brown, a youngster whose career has been marred by almost as many setbacks as triumphs.
In his short but eventful career with the Pirates, he’s already had to wait an extra year to enroll because of initial problems with the NCAA’s Clearinghouse, sit out six games as a freshman with a knee injury and miss the first three games of last season while suspended for a violation of team rules. This bout with adversity may be the most difficult yet to overcome.
“[Telling him] was tough,” Montgomery said Wednesday. “I promised him that we are going to do everything we can to make sure he’s educated and get him ready for next year. We have his back.”
Brown will still be part of the team and can continue to practice as long as he remains a full-time student. He will have one season of eligibility left.
Brown appears to be taking Wednesday’s news as well as can be expected judging from the encouraging messages he’s posted to his teammates on social media, but it’s going to be a long year and he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.
At this point, all he can do is bide his time and hope that fate only derails this one season, not the rest of his still promising career.