EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern junior defensive end Vince Browne never could figure out why former Wildcats star and current Chicago Bears rookie Corey Wootton had been so calm on the field.
There were so many reasons not to be relaxed. With the crowd yelling, the offensive linemen lining up inches from you ready to do battle, the incredible speed of the game once the ball was hiked and the necessity to make instant decisions, the adrenaline had always engulfed Browne. But when he looked over at Wootton, he was as cool as could be.
"I didn't understand it at the time, but seeing how relaxed he was out there, he just went out and played," Browne said. "He didn't think too much and made plays."
Now a year later, Browne gets it. He has yet to find the Zen-like zone Wootton possessed on the field, but Browne's Big Ten-leading five sacks and second-best eight tackles for a loss in 2010 show he's moving in that direction.
"[I'm relaxed] more so this year than ever," Browne said.
In the past year, physically not much has changed in Browne. He's still built like a rock at 6-5 and 265 pounds and has the speed to chase people down.
Where's he developed is mentally. Somewhere in the past year, what he was studying on paper and film began to click for him. The offensive formations, what the defense was trying to do, what he needed to read, it all started making sense to him more than it ever had.
Browne had no trouble transferring that knowledge onto the field. He began seeing plays before they unfolded. The game was moving slower for him. He was around the ball quicker than anyone else.
"I just think it's maturing and knowing what I'm doing and being able to read my keys better," said Browne, who had one sack and two tackles for a loss in last week's win over Minnesota. "That helps with every aspect of the game."
And just like that, Browne began to understand how Wootton was able to play so calm. Wootton was so confident in what he could do that he didn't have to worry about the crowd, the offensive linemen or anything else.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has seen that transformation in Browne.
"Vince has really become a student of the game," Fitzgerald said. "I think that's helped him out tremendously from the standpoint of understanding what we're trying to do first and then really studying tape and studying his opponents. He's always played with a tremendous motor. He's always played with tremendous effort. I think that's been kind of been his calling card, you can say."
Not that Browne needed any more motivation heading into this season, but he was aware that there were people who were questioning whether Northwestern's defensive line would be the same with Wootton's departure to the NFL.
"I think there was a huge knock on us once Corey graduated," Browne said. "How terrible we were going to be and all this business. We all knew we had guys who could play the game and play at a high level. We went from hearing how terrible we were going to be to how well we're doing thus far. It's not even the midpoint to the season yet. We're going to get a lot better and keep playing hard."
While some may be surprised by Browne's production, Northwestern senior cornerback Justan Vaughn hasn't been.
"Vince Browne is all about football and just trying to do everything it takes to make himself better as a player, whether it's eating right or doing that extra workout that will give him that edge on Saturdays," Vaughn said. "He's always been about that. Him playing well is expected.
"I feel like he's a complete defensive end. He uses his hands really well, and he's pretty strong, and he's pretty quick. Having all those attributes coming off the line makes it's hard for the offensive line to stop him."