Connecticut's Donald Brown II quietly matched his better-known counterparts yard-for-yard down the stretch last season and has defensive coordinators all asking the same question:
What can Brown do to you?
Brown didn't gain the starting job until the eighth game of the 2006 season, but proceeded to ring up 673 yards in his five starts. That's 81 more than Rutgers' Rice had in his final five games and only one fewer than West Virginia's Slaton had in his final five (not including the Gator Bowl, where Slaton saw limited duty because of an injury).
The competition wasn't all soft, either. Brown, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, had 199 yards against Rutgers and 122 against Louisville. He also pounded Pitt for 205 yards on a Big East season-high 43 carries and was the only freshman named all-conference, joining Rutgers' Brian Leonard on the second-team, behind you-know-who.
Was it a fluke? Not to those who've tracked Brown's football career. They see a 5-foot-11, 215-pound former track star who can out-squat linemen and who is so determined to succeed that he had his own speed and strength coaches in high school.
They also see an athlete who is so sure of himself that he turned down offers to play defensive back at Tennessee or Nebraska because he wanted the ball in his hands.
"If Donald stays healthy, he has the ability to be up there challenging those people," said UConn coach Randy Edsall, referring to Rice and Slaton. "He's very talented."
Edsall compares Brown to a former teammate at Syracuse, Joe Morris, based on his superior lower-body strength and balance. Brown also has good speed, as evidenced by runs of 65, 53 and 47 yards last season.
"You really have to hit him to bring him down," Edsall said.
Brown didn't exactly duck the question when he was asked about Rice and Slaton, but
"l'm really not worried about them," he said. "They're two great running backs. It's evident with the numbers they're putting up. If the offensive line does a good job, maybe I'll be up there with them."
Asked about individual goals, Brown said, "I don't have individual goals. Once we start winning games, things will take care of themselves."
Humility is a big part of Brown's game. That became evident in speaking with Edsall and with Brown's coach at Red Bank Catholic (N.J.) High School, Frank Edgerly.
"I tell people this: I'm the father of two daughters, and this is the kind of an individual you'd like them to meet," Edgerly said. "Go to any teacher, any coach, any student here, and they will give you the same opinion."
Brown was Red Bank's first Division I-A recruit in 20 years. He led the team to a parochial title in his senior year, rushing for 2,032 yards and 27 touchdowns, including a 27-yard touchdown run on his final play.
And he made an even bigger impression off the field.
Frank Maloney, a 1954 graduate of Red Bank, was one of the team's biggest fans -- and was dying of cancer during Brown's senior year. He would pass away three weeks after the season.
"Donald made it a point, after every game, to seek Frank out and spend time with him, and the best thing about it is, no one told him to," Edgerly said. "The best way I can phrase it for you: He gets it. He understands there are people looking up to him."
Brown grew up about a half-hour from the Rutgers campus, but when asked if he was a Scarlet Knights fan growing up, he gave a flat, one-word answer.
That didn't change when Rutgers only lightly recruited Brown, while the likes of Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin made him offers. The latter two would have given Brown a shot at tailback, he said, but UConn had less depth at the position and is only three hours from home.
What's more, Brown liked UConn's pre-kinesiology program, where he could focus on strength and conditioning. He's an outstanding student and a fitness freak, able to squat 600 pounds.
"The only thing I've ever seen him drink is water," Edgerly said.
After redshirting his first year because of a hamstring injury, Brown went into last season as the backup to senior Terry Caulley. As fate would have it, his first start in place of an injured Caulley came at No. 16 Rutgers, in front of friends, family and an ESPN television audience.
Brown ran for 199 yards on 28 carries in a near-upset that turned into a 24-13 loss. His two third-quarter touchdown runs (65 and 7 yards) cut Rutgers' lead to 17-13. He says he was focused more on the opportunity to play than on proving something to Rutgers.
Any hard feelings, Brown claims, have dissipated.
"I'm over that stage," he said.
Brown's success will depend largely on a UConn line that has struggled the past two years. Edsall believes it will be an improved unit because of increased depth and experience. The quarterback position might be upgraded, too. Highly touted junior-college transfer Tyler Lorenzen is battling redshirt sophomore Dennis Brown for the job.
Donald Brown believes the Huskies are ready to rebound after going 3-11 in the Big East the past two seasons.
"To be honest with you," he said, "I think the sky's the limit."
Any Huskies' success, however, will begin on the ground.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.