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Football season preview: Bruno tackles first official competition in two years

Bears look to continue improvement under Coach James Perry despite lost 2020 season

After a poor 2018 campaign that saw the football team go winless in the Ivy League, the Bears brought in new head coach James Perry '00 as well as transfer quarterback EJ Perry GS and immediately showed signs of improvement. In 2019, Brown picked up its first conference win in over three years with a victory over Columbia and held its own in the season finale against Ivy League co-champion Dartmouth in a narrow 29-23 defeat. 

But the football team was denied the opportunity to continue its promising trajectory in 2020 when its season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with a veteran squad of more than 10 graduate student-athletes, the Bears will look to maintain their positive momentum from 2019 and contend for an Ivy League title in their return to the field.

"I've been thrilled at how maturely (the team) has handled the challenges" of the cancelled 2020 season, James Perry said. "A lot of it is just how maturely they handled staying in great shape, staying engaged when it comes to Zooms and staying on top of their schoolwork … This past spring and this summer, we're really seeing the rewards of those efforts.”

Leading the way for the Bears will be captains EJ Perry and Allen Smith ’22. With EJ Perry as quarterback and Smith as running back, the pair make up a dynamic one-two punch on offense. EJ Perry served as a dual threat for Bruno in 2019, finishing second in the Ivy League in passing with 2,948 yards and 22 touchdowns, and adding 730 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, earning First-Team All-Ivy honors. Smith chipped in with 550 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns of his own, as well as two receiving scores. Smith was Brown's lead running back in 2019 as only a sophomore, and James Perry expects him to return stronger than ever as an experienced senior in 2021. 

"There are few (running) backs in the whole country that have shown his growth," James Perry said. "Allen is just bigger, faster, stronger than he's ever been."

EJ Perry was one of several football players to take advantage of the Ivy's League eligibility waiver for athletes who lost their senior seasons in 2020, allowing him to return and compete for Brown as a graduate student. He will be aiming to capitalize on the strengths in his game in 2021, namely his playmaking skills and mobility, while cutting down on turnovers. EJ Perry threw for a solid 60 percent completion rate in 2019, but tossed an Ivy League-leading 13 interceptions. 

"I have big aspirations of improvement in terms of accuracy, in terms of game management, in terms of getting the ball to (my teammates) who are unbelievable playmakers," EJ Perry said.

Other notable offensive players for the Bears include Dan Gemmell GS, Brown's top returning receiver from 2019 with 372 yards and two touchdown catches, and offensive lineman Chad Broome-Webster GS. Broome-Webster "will definitely get some national recognition for preseason awards," James Perry said. "At this level, you don't get a lot of linemen more high-profile than him." Bruno's explosive offense led the Football Championship Subdivision in yardage in 2019 and will look to continue that success in 2021.

Brown fielded an extremely young defense in 2019, especially in the secondary. "We were playing almost exclusively sophomores and freshmen in the secondary two years ago," James Perry said. This contributed to the Bears giving up 40.2 points per game, a number that will be expected to improve as the Bears' defenders return with more experience. Anchoring the more seasoned defensive unit will be cornerback Nick Messina ’22 and linebacker Jason Medeiros ’22 — both of whom played in all ten games for Bruno in 2019 — in addition to cornerback Cooper DeVeau ’23, who recorded 46 tackles and 11 pass break-ups as a first-year, and Callum Flanders GS, who notched three sacks in 2019.

One area the Bears will need to improve on in 2021 is finishing out close games. While Brown finished just 2-8 in 2019, four of those losses were by a single possession. This included a heartbreaking loss to Cornell in which the Bears had an opportunity to run out the clock with a 35-34 lead but lost possession and ultimately the game when the Big Red kicker clanked his game-winning field goal off the upright but still snuck the ball through the goalposts. 

Still, EJ Perry said he is optimistic that the Bears can overcome this weakness. "Doing it in the biggest moments, the most important moments, acting the same way you act on the first drive of the game in the last drive of the game, is something we're going to greatly improve on," he said. "Being super well-conditioned so that we can finish in the fourth quarter is going to be super important."

Bruno will open its season with a stern test at home against the University of Rhode Island. The Rams will enter the matchup fresh off their previous season, which was postponed to spring 2021 due to COVID-19, while the Bears will have to shake off the rust from their two-year hiatus. URI went 2-1 in its abbreviated spring season and proved its ability to perform in key moments with both wins coming in overtime. James Perry predicts the Rams will be nationally ranked going into the game.

While URI will have faced live action much more recently than Brown, Smith expects the Bears to be ready. "When we had spring (practices), it didn't look like we hadn't played football in over a year," Smith said, noting that his team's freshness could provide an advantage, as Brown's players are dealing with relatively few injuries heading into the season. 

Brown's game against URI will be the first ever played on the Richard Gouse Field, which is currently under construction but will be completed by the start of the season. The new field will be made of artificial turf and will be the first of its kind to be put in place in Brown Stadium. "To roll out week one, on that new turf, in historic Brown Stadium … we're all excited for that," EJ Perry said.

Bruno will once again utilize a fast play style in 2021, taking advantage of its offensive weapons. Smith believes the new turf field will help the Bears implement their offensive system. "The surface is going to allow us to play faster than what we've done," Smith said. "Playing fast, playing tough, is going to lead us to a ring."

The Bears will head to Cambridge, Massachusetts for their second game of the year to take on rival Harvard, which will be led by another graduate student quarterback in Jake Smith. The Brown vs. Harvard matchup will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU on Sept. 24 during prime time. "No doubt about what kind of test we got coming right out of the gates … we've got two great games to kick the (season) off," James Perry said. 

Brown will complete its non-conference schedule with games against Bryant University and Colgate University. Then, it will battle its six other Ivy League opponents, concluding its season once again with a home matchup against Dartmouth. 

With its high-powered offense, bolstered defense and overall more experienced roster, the football team will push for its first Ivy League title since 2008. "Everyone on the team believes we can beat every single (other team) in our league," Smith said. "We're looking for a ring … we're looking to go back to what Brown football has historically been."



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