DURHAM — As exhilarating as Dukes victory over North Carolina was for everyone associated with the Blue Devils program last season, Kelby Brown remembers it feeling a lot like every other game.
In the midst of rehabbing his right knee after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL, the junior from Charlotte Christian had to watch Dukes dramatic win from the sidelines.
And while he made a point of encouraging his fellow linebackers and trying to help them understand what the offense was doing, Brown says he had to fight the same feeling that washed over him almost every week namely, that he was healthy enough to run onto the field and make a difference.
The whole season was kind of a growing process for me learning how to grow without being on the field, Brown said. It was good to be able to trust my teammates, and they got it done without me on the field.
As No. 24 Duke (9-2, 5-2) prepares to face North Carolina (6-5, 4-3) a little more than one year after its signature victory of 2012, Brown has long since recovered from the knee surgery that sidelined him for the entire season.
Finally healthy, Brown has helped lead the Blue Devils defense, engineering a number of memorable moments throughout Dukes ascendant season.
While Browns most notable performance came against Virginia Tech he made 14 tackles and intercepted a pass late in the game to seal the victory and earn national defensive player of the week honors his effort against Georgia Tech may have been more significant.
Duke wasnt particularly competitive against the Yellow Jackets, losing 38-14, but for Brown, it was the week when he finally felt his individual performance wasnt impaired by his knee.
I had my career high in tackles, and it was against an offense that, my freshman year, I kind of struggled with my keys, my reads and getting off blockers, Brown said of his 17-tackle effort. Against Georgia Tech this year, I felt I was playing at a really high level compared to where I had been.
It was against Georgia Tech during his standout freshman year that Brown first injured his ACL. After surgery, he rehabbed in time to play his sophomore season, but even though he won the award for the teams best linebacker, the general feeling was that Brown wasnt the same dynamic player as he was before the injury.
People noticed that Kelby wasnt the same as he was his freshman year, senior offensive lineman Dave Harding said. I spoke with Kelby he knew that as well. It was frustrating for him to have put in a years worth of rehab and to not have the speed and the ability to make the same plays he had been.
Kelby has an uncanny knack for where the ball is going to be on offense and is a frustrating person to block. Hes able to just read things and has an innate sense. When hes not able to react to those things as fast as hed like, its frustrating to him.
While it was also disappointing to Brown to have to sit out last season after he re-injured his knee in the offseason and underwent a second surgery, he says he used his redshirt year to sharpen his mental acumen for football.
Players often talk about how they learn to see the game more like a coach when forced to sit out. Brown is no different, but what may be unique in Browns case is his dedication to the off-the-field component of the game.
Kelby is committed to every part of being a good football player, particularly a defensive football player, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. Hell study an opponent, hes got great recognitions. At linebacker, reaction time is everything and reacting properly. You cant start re-directing the whole game. Youve got to get a sense of no false steps and no false movements.
In Browns mind, that is one of the key reasons hes had such a strong junior campaign. In addition to the outings against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, Brown also tied his career high with 17 tackles against Miami and had 10 tackles (including two for a loss) and one forced fumble against N.C. State.
But there is another critical part of his formula for success.
And thats his rebuilt right knee.
Physically for one, I needed a year to get my strength and my speed, which I had lost after two surgeries, he said. And then from a mental aspect, I almost had a coachs view of the defense last year. So I was able to piece things together its all clicked together like a big puzzle in my head. I can kind of see where everything fits together.
Its been huge.