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Newfound brawn boosts Huskies' Brown

Northern Illinois offensive tackle Ryan Brown talks with teammates during practice Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
Northern Illinois offensive tackle Ryan Brown talks with teammates during practice Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois left tackle Ryan Brown guzzles 2-3 protein shakes per day. Chocolate “Monster Mash” shakes are by far his favorite, and can be especially effective for cultivating mass when downed before bed.

As Brown awaits Florida State’s elite defensive linemen in the Jan. 1 Orange Bowl, he’s reminded of his initial tussle with a speedy metabolism. The bout started when Brown was a high school athlete at St. Charles North.

ESPN graphics will identify Brown by his hometown and by his 6-foot-6, 283-pound frame during its telecast one week from tonight. What that data won’t quite capture runs parallel to the Huskies’ banner season.

Brown’s rise from walk-on to national TV custodian of quarterback Jordan Lynch’s blind side begins with toil and ends with routine shake consumption. There is plenty of resolve on the side.

“I just sat down and made sure starting was one of my goals and a top priority,” said Brown. “Worked out, ate anything I could and just came in fighting to get that spot in camp.”

Huskies coach Rod Carey inherited Brown upon joining the program as an assistant to Dave Doeren before the 2011 season. Earlier this month, Carey was elevated to head coach when Doeren accepted the same position at North Carolina State after leading the Huskies to a 12-1 record and a second successive Mid-American Conference championship.

Carey remained in his earlier role as offensive line coach during bowl preparation, so his history with “Brownie,” a redshirt sophomore, wasn’t soon forgotten. Same for the season-ending broken tibia left tackle Tyler Loos suffered Nov. 14, prompting Brown’s move to the other side of the line.

Like Brown himself, the story starts slim, then builds substance.

“Brownie came here as a walk-on. He was dripping wet, I think, if he was 235 [pounds],” Carey said. “I mean, he wasn’t nothing. He’s worked his tail off to get where he is, and he ends up most of the season splitting time over at right tackle and playing pretty well, and then Loos goes down. Now he’s the starting left tackle. I think he’s excited. Obviously, kind of everything speaks for itself.”

Brown’s older brother, Patrick, dares to say more. A fellow North alumnus, Patrick Brown often tells Ryan how lucky he is. That was well before the Huskies became the first MAC team with a BCS bowl bid. And well before Ryan Brown met the accelerated regimens of collegiate strength training, using new data about workouts and diets to gradually build a bigger base.

After graduating from Central Florida as an offensive lineman, Patrick Brown played with a handful of NFL teams, with stops that included a seasonlong stint as a Minnesota Vikings backup in 2011. Brown was a casualty of the Vikings’ final round of cuts in September and signed with the Miami Dolphins earlier this month.

Once the Huskies arrive in south Florida – they are set to fly there Wednesday morning – the Browns will be reunited. At some point, Patrick plans to repeat to his brother the reasons he is already ahead. He can’t stress it enough.

“Him being able to play right side and now left side is huge,” Patrick Brown said. “I tell him that all the time. I never did that in college and I regret not being able to do that. He is helping himself out immensely. He’s doing a great job and it’s a skill that people really talk about when they look at you down the road.”

Ryan Brown acknowledges the praise before ultimately shrugging it off.

“Same skill set, just different hand motion and a little bit different footwork,” he said.

That could just be the persistence talking. To be sure, Brown has grown accustomed to obstacles on his way to becoming a scholarship player.

Brown redshirted his freshman season in 2010, but not before impressing former Huskies head coach Jerry Kill in an August scrimmage. Brown had chosen NIU after MAC rival Western Michigan approached him about being a “grayshirt.” Under the Broncos’ stipulation, they would have signed Brown in time to prepare for 2011 spring ball if he had bulked up about 30 pounds to 270-280 after one semester of community college.

NIU won.

“He’s a walk-on player,” Kill told reporters then. “If he keeps playing like that, he won’t be very long.”

Brown emerged as the Huskies’ backup swing tackle on the strong and weak sides last season, working to catch Doeren’s eye after Kill departed for Minnesota. He also played on the field goal and extra-point teams.

When the Huskies graduated four starters from the 2011 offensive line, Brown saw an opening. Once returning guard and likely starting center Logan Pegram suffered a lower leg fracture in camp, the urgency increased.

Brown started at right tackle after NIU’s season-opening loss to Iowa at Soldier Field, initially rotating with Matt Krempel. The Loos injury led to a seamless transition. Entering the Orange Bowl, the offensive line has allowed just 1.08 sacks a game while paving the way for an attack that averages 40.77 points and 250.15 rushing yards a game – both ninth-best in the country.

Lynch lauded Brown as “one of the most reliable offensive linemen we have” while noticing his “dedication ... to put on all the weight.”

Brown weighed 280 pounds entering the first fall workouts of 2012 after spending much of his summer at Batavia-based Pro Force Sports Performance Training, embracing the franchise’s “Train Insane” credo to add muscle with more intensive workouts. He added about 10 pounds in the early stages of camp by augmenting his lifting with excuses to eat extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And, of course, there were the shakes.

“It was just coming into my body, really. I wouldn’t say I eat a lot more than I did in high school, but I definitely work out a lot harder,” Brown said. “So then my body matured and I kind of caught up.”

Huskies special teams standout and reserve linebacker Bobby Winkel, a Marmion graduate from Batavia, has known Ryan Brown from their earlier days in youth sports.

For everything going on around the program, Winkel has especially enjoyed charting his friend’s growth.

“Seeing him go from high school when he was playing basketball, being super skinny and a post man and not really throwing it in there too hard to now being a big dude and starting at left tackle. ...That’s a huge thing for us, because he’s doing great,” Winkel said.

Brown still is hoping to get thicker, aspiring to a weight range of 290-295 pounds next season. As far as Patrick Brown is concerned, his brother is looking all right for now.

At 6-5 and 310 pounds, Patrick Brown gives up slightly more than an inch to his little brother. To Patrick, that almost offsets a 27-pound weight advantage.

“He’s my younger brother, so I’d like to say I’ll always be bigger,” Patrick Brown said. “But he can see over my head now. I don’t like to admit it, but he’s still bigger.”

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