Brown embracing challenge at hand

DAVIE, Fla. -- On Saturday morning, at the precise moment Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban exhaled into his whistle to commence the initial practice of his second training camp, the South Florida heavens suddenly delivered a deluge.

Two or three minutes into the thunder, lightning and pelting, monsoon-level rain, a frustrated Saban grudgingly conceded to the weather and hustled his team into the newly constructed practice bubble that sits adjacent to the club's permanent facility here. So instead of beginning camp with the 10 straight days of outdoor practices that Saban had planned, working his players in the sweltering crucible and withering humidity that often mold championship teams, the Dolphins began the quest for their first playoff berth since 2001 in the climate-controlled comfort of an air-conditioned Teflon tent.

Asked about the sudden change in practice plans, and whether the first practice was at all disjointed by the unanticipated move to the bubble, tailback Ronnie Brown responded the way he does to most questions, no matter how benign or grave, before answering.

He smiled.

The fickle gods of South Florida weather might be both unpredictable and whimsical enough, it appears, to mess with a guy even as powerful as Saban, a coach whose brilliance is constructed in part on always being in control of every situation. But nothing, it seems, can rain on Brown's parade.

"To me, it doesn't matter, honestly," said Brown, whose broad grin is challenged only by the breadth of his still burgeoning talents. "Indoors. Outdoors. Sun or rain. It's not a big deal. It's football and I enjoy playing football. Put me out on the field and I'm a happy man. I'm ready to go."

The Dolphins' first-round choice in the 2005 draft (second overall) and a starter in his debut NFL season, Brown may have to be more ready to go in 2006 than at any time since his senior season at Cartersville (Ga.) High School. Because suddenly, the guy who shared a backfield with Carnell "Cadillac" Williams at Auburn, and then had erstwhile globetrotter Ricky Williams as his caddie last season with the Dolphins, is pretty much a solo act in his second NFL go-round.

Reminded that he is not only under more scrutiny this season because of Ricky Williams' absence, but that he also is operating without a safety net for the first time in several years, Brown, well … yeah, he smiled. But then his expressive face scrunched up a bit, and his shoulders tensed, as if he felt his viability as a back capable of logging 300-350 carries was being challenged, which was hardly the intent of the exercise.

As good-natured as he is -- and Brown, by all accounts, is about as egoless a player as exists at this level -- it's pretty obvious Miami's young star is at least slightly agitated by questions of whether the stallion can become a workhorse.

"All I know," Brown said, with no hint of braggadocio, "is that if I get carries, we'll get yards. There's no question in my mind."

The questions in the minds of others, though, are legitimate and justified. They aren't meant to suggest Brown isn't durable enough to be the centerpiece of a ground game, but are more a reminder he hasn't yet been required to shoulder that load.

Brown, 24, averaged only 128.3 carries per year in college, and usually operating in the lengthy shadow of Cadillac Williams, never logged more than 175 rushes in a season at Auburn. In his debut NFL campaign, Brown totaled 207 rushes, and averaged 13.1 attempts in his 14 starts. In only three games last season did Brown register more than 20 rushes. There were four outings in which he had nine carries or fewer. His two 100-yard performances came in games in which he carried 23 times each.

Brown insisted he's ready for more games like that. And perfectly able, he said, to handle the rigors of a dramatically increased workload. And make no mistake: His workload will be ramped up.

No less an authority than Brown's old college running mate, Cadillac Williams, feels the Dolphins' ground game is in very good hands.

Said the Bucs star: "Maybe because of the way he was used [at Auburn], people came to see Ronnie more as, you know, an all-around back. And, look, he can do a lot of things. But he's a great running back, and people are going to realize that even more this year."

The Dolphins have a new quarterback in former Minnesota star Daunte Culpepper and a new offensive coordinator in onetime Buffalo head coach Mike Mularkey, who as a coordinator in Pittsburgh was famous for his well-timed gimmick plays. But even with the potential for more big plays, Saban isn't likely to alter his philosophy on how you win football games: You do the little things well, like running the football. And given the current state of the Dolphins' tailback depth chart, that probably means you hand it to Brown about 20 times a game.

Without Ricky Williams, there is no fallback guy, no proven backup. Suspended for the season under the league's drug rules, Williams had 168 rushes in 2005. In five of the games in which both he and Brown were available, Williams had more carries. In one other contest, they had the same number of carries. Among current candidates for the No. 2 tailback spot, Sammy Morris' busiest season was in 2004, when he posted 132 rushes, but that was the only time in his six-year career he had triple-digit carries. Travis Minor has averaged only 51.6 attempts in five seasons.

So who takes up the slack? Unless the Dolphins acquire another tailback, and their efforts to trade for New Orleans backup Michael Bennett seem to have waned as Saban seems satisfied for now with the makeup of the backfield, most of the extra carries probably will go to Brown.

And the second-year standout, who rushed for 907 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, will be only too happy to claim them.

"The day I heard about [Williams' latest suspension], I felt bad for Ricky, because he really is a good guy and he helped me so much last year," Brown said. "But I wasn't like, 'Oh, no, what now?' I knew what that probably meant. And once it set in, I just kind of figured, 'OK, this is what's going to be expected of me, and I've got to be ready to handle it.' And I am.

"It just comes," Brown said, naturally, smiling, "with the territory."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.