CEDAR FALLS — Spencer Brown is growing into his new role on the University of Northern Iowa football team.
The former Lenox all-state football and basketball player’s summer job is to put on weight. About 30 pounds, to be precise.
In fact, the summer landscaping job he started when classes concluded got in the way of that quest, so he stopped.
“Coach (Mark Farley) made me quit that job,” Brown said. “I lost too much weight. I worked two weeks outside in the heat and lost 12 pounds. One day our trainer said to me, ‘You’re in trouble.’ I was down to 263 pounds.”
Coming to Northern Iowa on scholarship was not only an adjustment in terms of learning the 11-man game after starring as a tight end and defensive end in Eight-Man football, but in recent months he’s also undergone a position change.
Brown was brought in as a tight end recruit at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds. He was redshirted last year as a freshman, and unable to practice until midway through September as he was coming off surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee in April 2016.
But, it wasn’t long before he was adding “good weight” through UNI’s strength program. Coaches saw his 6-8 frame, his speed for a player that size, and envisioned the possibilities of someone like that working in the trenches.
“During conditioning in December I was at about 250 and I was called into coach Farley’s office,” Brown related. “He said I’d put on 20 pounds since I’ve been here for three months and I don’t look fat. He said, ‘You can still move. We’ll probably move you to (offensive) tackle.’ Why try to be something I’m not? As long as it gives me a chance to play, I’m all for it.”
Brown got up to 275 pounds, but then dropped below 265 for awhile during his landscaping job. Through a lot of high-calorie food intake and one or two lifting sessions per day, he’s looking to get to 290 or 295 by the start of fall training camp.
“They need me to put on weight in case they need me this fall,” Brown said. “I’m working with the strength coach so I can stay toned up and I can put on more muscle than fat.”
When interviewed last week, Brown said he just finished a lunch of six egg sandwiches, a big tub of yogurt and three glasses of whole milk. He has a high-carb powder he mixes with Gatorade after lifting sessions.
Brown is working at right tackle behind senior Bryce Sweeney, a 6-7, 316-pound senior from Sioux City Bishop Heelan.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Brown said. “Our offensive line coach (Mike Simmonds) said he likes to have athletic guys who are a little faster at that position. Everybody on the other side— the D-tackles and outside linebackers — are all fast now. On running plays, I need to get outside the ends and set the edge so there’s a place to run. Of course, pass protection is still really important.”
Former Grinnell all-stater Eli Dunne takes over full-time at quarterback after sharing the position on last year’s 5-6 team.
“I like our offense,” Brown said. “Spring ball went really well. Coach Farley said we (offensive linemen) had one of the best springs. We’re deep at the running back position and our quarterback returns. Our defense is a little young in the secondary, but I know they’re pretty good. We have a lot of older guys back in the D-line.”
In his first year on the field, Brown is hoping to make the travel squad as a backup at right tackle and get a chance to play on special teams before contending for more playing time as a redshirt sophomore.
“I think I have a pretty good shot at the field goal team and the punt shield (protection) unit,” Brown said. “Hopefully, I can travel and experience going to different atmospheres. Last year we all went to Jack Trice (Iowa State), but I was hurt and didn’t dress.”
It’s been a long journey for Brown to reach this point healthy. Interruptions for physical ailments were the norm during his career as a Lenox Tiger.
The son of Kurt Brown and Liz Jessen fractured his femur during basketball as a junior. He had hoped to recover in time for baseball, where he was part of a formidable pitching duo with Caleb Lange as a sophomore, but during the spring he still felt some soreness in his knee.
A scarred condition under his kneecap, osteochondral defect, required surgery in May of his junior year. That forced him to miss that baseball season and the many summer football camps often used to evaluate top junior and sophomore recruits.
Brown got cleared to play the day before the football season opener his senior year, and responded with six quarterback sacks against East Union. He finished with 17 solo sacks as the Iowa high school leader in all classifications. He also caught 24 passes for 388 yards and seven touchdowns, while making first-team all-state as a defensive lineman.
In looking back at that season, Brown thinks he tore the meniscus in his knee in the regular-season game against East Mills, but continued playing for Lenox’s 10-1 district championship team.
He also became a first-team all-stater in basketball, averaging 22.8 points, 19.9 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game. He tied for the state lead in blocked shots and was second in rebounding. He recorded the state’s first 40-40 game with 42 points and 41 rebounds in a game against Stanton. His 458 rebounds was the sixth-highest ever by an Iowa high school player.
Finally, after the winter season, Brown dealt with the knee soreness and had his meniscus repaired on April 25. He tried to come back late in the baseball season, but it didn’t last long.
“I had one at-bat and walked,” Brown said. “The doctors said it wasn’t a great idea, so I thought it probably wasn’t worth risking a full scholarship.”
UNI trainers worked him in slowly as he missed fall camp and eventually got on the field in September. It was an adjustment for the former Eight-Man player from southwest Iowa.
“It was a lot different,” he said. “Just the physicality, everybody is so big and strong and very intelligent about the game. They aren’t your average Joes!”
And now, just a few months later, Brown is excited about playing in the trenches at a new position.
“Coach Simmonds gets us fired up,” Brown said. “It’s a dogfight every play. There’s so much going on every play. Like I told KMA earlier in an interview, it’s all about your legs, your hand placement, where your feet are and how wide they are. If one thing is off, you usually don’t win the block or the play gets blown up. I’m excited about getting better at it and making a contribution here.”