DURHAM – Kelby Brown searched for a little more contact than coaches wanted during the first days of Duke fall football camp.
That was to be expected for the 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker, who last season suffered a season-ending knee injury against Georgia Tech on Nov. 20. Such time away had the sophomore itching to hit someone.
For Brown, the desire to hit overshadowed any thoughts about his rehabilitated right knee or the black knee brace he was wearing. “I felt fine through just about everything I did,” said Brown, who on Dec. 15 underwent surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.
“I feel really comfortable,” he said during the team’s media day on Wednesday. “I was not hesitant. I was able to move really well.”
Just three days into practices, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the staff would reduce Brown’s workload after two days of aggressive drill work. They want to bring him along slowly during camp to assure his participation in the season-opener against Richmond on Sept. 3.
Brown, who started in seven of the nine games he played last season, emerged as one of the Devils’ most talented defenders. The Matthews native capitalized on his limited playing time as a freshman in camp and impressed coaches with his tenacity and talent.
He collected 63 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries. He was second among ACC freshmen in tackles per game (7.0) and finished third for league defensive rookie of the year.
“What’s great is his instincts,” said Cutcliffe, who “He knows where the ball is, his reaction time. He was grinning afterward. I can tell. He felt the same way I did. You know when you have knee surgery, you have to get past that part when you’re never going to be the same again. I think he celebrated that moment.”
Brown returns as Duke’s top linebacker and will play a key role as the Mike in the Devils’ new 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
“He’ll be our slide guy,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “He’ll be our guy who we’ll put to the running strength. ... We’ll put him at the point of attack.”
That’s a comfortable spot for Brown.
“I found myself not hesitating to engage contact and try to run through holes and fill my gaps,” he said after his first days back. “I haven’t event thought about my knee. Soon as I get on the field, I feel like it’s perfectly fine.”
Brown injured his knee after he was chopped blocked. Getting off the ground, he was hit by a pile of players and felt “a pop.”
“Rehabs the hardest part,” Brown said of recovery. He spent two months working out stiffness, missing spring football. He played in seven-on-seven player-only drills during summer break.
Now he’s returned to test his preparedness.
“I might not get back to my full speed and where I was before I got hurt,” he said of the first couple of months back. “But I’ll be able to play at 100 percent mentally. A half-step from where I was, but really I’ll be fine.”
Brown eagerly took the field on Monday.
“Kelby’s always eager,” Duke senior safety Matt Daniels said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s checkers or ping pong. He’s always ready to go. He’s got his motor turning.