May 15, 2021

Brown’s evolution reaches pinnacle

Lean basketball star becomes NFL tackle

(Editor’s note: Part two of a two-part series on Lenox native Spencer Brown being selected in the 2021 NFL draft.)

LENOX — Not many NFL offensive tackles were lean, athletic basketball players in high school with hoop dreams in their college plans.

But, there’s nothing “typical” about Spencer Brown’s athletic prowess.

After his sophomore year at Lenox High School, Brown was growing into a dominant role in southwest Iowa basketball. He spent many summer weekends on the AAU circuit, honing his skills for a possible collegiate career. He was 6-4 and less than 200 pounds.

“I started playing AAU basketball the summer before my junior year,” said Brown, selected in the third round of the NFL Draft Friday night by the Buffalo Bills as an offensive tackle. “I was starting to hear from some schools around Iowa, like Briar Cliff, Buena Vista and SWCC. When anyone mentioned football, I don’t know, I’d look in the mirror and see a broomstick (frame) and think, you’re going to block college guys?”

Playing tight end and defensive end as a junior, Brown began to gain notice on the football field. Cousins Wade and Jake Samo were on the sidelines watching one night in Stanton when Brown made a play that sparked an idea.

After that game, Wade Samo encouraged him to put together a highlight tape to send around. (Lenox wasn’t on the online HUDL service for team and individual videos at the time.)

“Football wasn’t even Spencer’s number one sport going into that year,” Wade Samo said. “I think he was thinking basketball. But he made a particular play at Stanton that made us think. He was running down the middle of the field on a post pattern, the ball was kind of overthrown, and somehow he got under it and made the catch. It was like fourth and seven, a big play in the game. I looked at my brother Jake and said, ‘Something more is going on here. This is a college football player.’ Jake and I both thought we were looking at a Big Ten, Big 12 type tight end.”

Brown assembled a highlight tape that UNI head coach Mark Farley observed in a Lenox High School computer lab while on one of his recruiting trips through western Iowa and the Omaha area. Brown was offered a scholarship on the spot, as a 220-pound tight end candidate.

Brown stayed loyal to UNI, despite recruiting visits from assistant coaches from Iowa and Iowa State. He never wavered when the Missouri Valley Football Conference delayed its 2020 season until this spring during the pandemic.

Brown was offered chances to join Power Five college teams to finish his career in the transfer portal, but instead trained in California through arrangements made by his agent’s company, Rep 1 Sports. He also appeared in the Senior Bowl in January in Mobile, Alabama.

“I was weighing my options at the time and I made the best decision for myself and my family at the time,” Brown said.

Playing a season this spring would have prevented some key NFL draft events, such as the appearance in the Senior Bowl that provided a chance to compete against the nation’s best players, and conduct interview sessions with virtually every team in the league. In fact, he felt he hit it off with personnel from the Bills better than anyone.

Shortly after UNI’s fall season was postponed, Brown connected with Rep 1 Sports, a sports agency headquartered in Irvine, California. Chase Callahan is his agent, and actually watched Brown become selected by the Bills at his draft party via the FaceTime app on the cell phone of Brown’s mother, Liz Jessen.

All-pro mentor

Rep 1 organized Brown’s development as a pro prospect with longtime client Joe Staley, former Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. Brown and other Rep 1 clients worked with Staley daily on strength and agility training, as well as refining techniques and skills necessary to succeed at the sport’s highest level.

Brown, who had grown to 6-9 and 315 pounds with a 500-pound bench press, had received all-conference honors at UNI as a junior and was named an FCS preseason All-American heading into a senior season that he never played. But, learning from a pro he had admired as a younger player was a boost, both mentally and physically.

“He is a real down to earth dude and was just teaching me the ropes, working either one-on-one or with other O-line guys they’d brought in,” Brown said. “The agency also worked with us on things like interview prep. We lifted weights and they had nutritionists helping us. The agency covers it all. They take care of you in all ways.”

Senior Bowl standout

Another key was being selected for Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. The Jan. 30 game was broadcast on NFL Network. Brown was joined in Mobile by UNI teammate Ellerson Smith, who was selected in the fourth round by the New York Giants. As a defensive end, Smith and Brown often opposed each other in UNI practices and scrimmages.

“Spencer showed in the Senior Bowl that he was ready to go,” said Ryan Clanton, UNI offensive line coach. “He killed it down there. The strength, the flexibility and the size. He’s got all the measureables. It’s hard for linemen to come back and just jump into playing in a game like that, but he did a great job.”

“I hadn’t played a football game in 14 months and that first day at practice it was a matter of knocking the rust off,” Brown recalled. “It was a matter of learning the speed of the game going up against the Power Five guys. At that level, everybody is as strong and fast as hell. Joe Staley was a big help in helping me regroup and learn the techniques, so when it came time for the game I was just doing the things he taught me.”

Brown received high grades from NFL scouts for his performance in the game and his stock rose. It took another jump at UNI’s pro day in March. Brown measured an official 6-8 1/2, 311 pounds with 34-inch arms. His 40-yard dash time was 4.94 and he bench pressed 225 pounds 29 times. His shuttle agility times were near record levels for an offensive lineman.

“That’s where playing all of the sports helps,” Brown said. “You really get to know your own body and develop abilities to slide and shuffle compared to guys who only play football.”

Soon, Brown was considered a second or third round draft choice at offensive tackle after three years starting at right tackle for the Panthers. Some published draft analysis articles described Brown as a “towering prospect” with the qualities to become a quality pro pass protector, but with room to grow in core strength and leverage in the run game. He’s considered an above average hand-fighter in the trenches with skills to adjust against a variety of defensive line attacks.

Brown knows he can still refine some strength and skills in his hips and legs, as he continues to transform his body from a tall, lean basketball player to a football lineman battling with the sport’s strongest athletes.

“I’m close,” Brown said. “I can get there. There are things I can do in the weight room to get my lower half stronger. These guys are freight trains out there. D-tackles are 310 and rocked up. It’s definitely a big change from playing against 19 and 20-year-olds. These are 30-year-old dudes who have been playing the game half of my life span.”

Adjusting to higher competitive levels have been the norm for Brown, since arriving on campus in Cedar Falls as a 6-8, 230-pound freshman trying to learn a new position when coaches noticed he was packing on pounds without losing athleticism. He gradually got to 275 pounds and was ready to start in the offensive line, and kept adding strength and size through the next two years.

“In talking with NFL guys I kept hearing things like high ceiling, or super raw, maybe not a polished starter right away on day one. But, my best ball will be ahead of me in two to three years,” Brown said. “I’m ready to get to work.”

Proud coach

UNI head coach Mark Farley certainly has no doubts about his former towering right tackle, as he recently remarked in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier.

“Here is an 8-man football guy from Lenox, Iowa, who is now going to be playing with the best players in the country,” Farley said. “It was a five-year development. He was all-in from the start. He is an example of the growth from what you come in as, to what you leave as if you buy in.”

Brown reports to Buffalo for rookie mini-camp on May 12. He had a quick visit to the team’s facilities on Saturday, doing some local public relations things and meeting personnel. He has been assigned jersey number 79.

Buffalo’s 2021 schedule includes a game at the Kansas City Chiefs. Exact dates of each game have not been released yet.

LARRY PETERSON

Former senior feature writer at Creston News Advertiser and columnist. Previous positions include sports editor for many years and assistant editor. Also a middle school basketball coach in Creston.