CHAMPAIGN — Like a center fielder waiting for the final fly ball of an inning, Sydney Brown camped at the Illinois 24-yard line and waited for a pass from Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke to fall right into his waiting arms.
The Spartans had been running the same play time and again on Saturday, but in the fourth quarter, Brown read it perfectly. He came up with his second interception of the day and let the blockers pave the way in front of him for a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown to help Illinois complete its 25-point, come-from-behind win over Michigan State to clinch a bowl berth with two games remaining.
Brown, a sophomore safety, couldn't believe the ball was coming to him, and later called it a gift. He was named the Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week after tallying 13 tackles, a pass defended and a pair of interceptions.
The truth is, Brown wasn't sure he would've made that play last year as a true freshman playing in the Big Ten. Countless hours of training with the strength staff, settling into head coach Lovie Smith's defense and the constant work with pass game coordinator and safeties coach Gill Byrd were instrumental in Brown's development.
“I’ve definitely matured a lot from my freshman year," said Brown, who attended St. Stephens Episcopal in Florida, but is from London, Ontario, Canada. "I don’t know if I would have had the maturity to make that play. To read it and have the ball come to me, it was just a blessing to make that play and be able to finish the way I did."
Early in the season, before the Illini (6-4) went on a four-game winning streak to clinch bowl eligibility, Brown had to shake off some of the rust from time missed, but he's hitting his groove now and is a key part of an improved Illinois defense that has the most takeaways in the country.
Brown sustained a hamstring injury in the first week of training camp, costing him all of camp and the first two weeks of the season after starting 10 games for Illinois last year. In eight games this season, he has 64 tackles, which is the third highest on the team, 1.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of interceptions.
“Those mistakes you make in training camp, you’re now making in (games)," Brown said. "You’re not really able to feel the confidence you build through training camp with all the practices that you have in the defense that we’re running.”
There's plenty of confidence in Brown now. He's listed at 6-feet tall, 210 pounds and has a habit of putting big hits on opposing players. That physical development comes from head strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez and his assistants. Byrd has helped keep Brown grounded after good games while continuing to push him forward, Brown said.
“I think football is more of a mental game, and being able to grasp understanding, coverages and different stations; just growing as a player," Brown said. "I think part of it is just being physically there and having the strength to deal with bigger players.
“I think the biggest part I’ve developed is mentally and understanding football more. There’s a big difference between high school and college, just being able to understand football and being able to translate it onto the field."
Brown started in his first two games back this season at safety against Eastern Michigan and Nebraska, but Delano Ware started in his place the next week at Minnesota. Illinois' other starting safety, Stanley Green, returned the following week against Michigan and Brown was in the starting lineup next to him. With its starting safeties in place, Illinois has gone 4-1 in the five games since.
"He’s a young, true sophomore," Smith said of Brown. "Nobody plays harder than him. He’s just relentless to the ball. He has excellent speed, he has great ability, too. He’s just the total package, but he’s still a young football player who will only get better and better in time. ... He’s just a good football player. It’s going to be fun watching this guy grow."
PHOTOS: 16 NFL stars with Illini roots
Geronimo Allison // WR
James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25
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