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New London - There were times last year when freshman quarterback Derek Victory, who was just learning the Coast Guard Academy's multi-faceted spread offense, wouldn't have the wherewithal to make the proper read.
He would make it simple: turn to the best receiver on the field, Collis Brown, and just heave it.
"He's incredible," Victory said. "When I was there, I would think to myself, 'I know Collis will be there to bail me out.' … The thing is, if you didn't know Collis Brown, you wouldn't know how talented he is. He doesn't act like that at all; he's a humble guy."
"He's just such a good athlete," Coat Guard offensive coordinator Ray LaForte said of Brown. "We've had awesome leaders. We've had awesome players. But it's right there staring you in the face. He's got both. He's even happy to pick up all the trash and put it in the garbage. He doesn't mind."
Brown, who is 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is one of 20 returning starters for Coast Guard, which held its first practice Sunday at Cadet Memorial Field.
Coach Bill George, back for his 16th season, was able to address the team Saturday night for the first time, but is still piecing things together as the incoming freshmen have one more week of Swab Summer to complete.
Coast Guard opens the season Sept. 6 at home against St. Lawrence.
Brown, who will captain the Bears along with senior linebacker Victor Rizzardi, is an All-America candidate, being named to the USA College Football preseason Division III All-America first team.
He earned first team All-New England Football Conference honors a year ago while leading the league in receptions (67) and yards (983), setting the Coast Guard record for most yards in a season.
He also set a pair of single-game records with his 16 catches and 244 yards in a victory over Western New England.
The next records up for Brown are a pair of prestigious ones. With 138 career catches for 1,744 yards, Brown is within range of the all-time marks in those categories held by Sam England (159 catches, 2006-09) and Christian Lee (2,356 yards, 1993-96).
And that's with opposing teams trying to shut him down.
"Teams sometimes try to prove to us, 'Can Coast Guard receivers get off the jam? Can their receivers step up?'" George said. "He catches the ball."
"Ever since high school ball I was taught once the ball is in the air, you should get it. There's no reason not to," Brown said. "I'm going to do whatever I can."
When Brown arrived at Coast Guard from Kingwood Park High School in Kingwood, Texas, he joined sister Larla, who was a member of the women's basketball team. Not slated to start right away, Brown broke into the lineup as a freshman due to a key injury in the receiving corps and finished with 18 catches for 223 yards.
Brown said the humility of which Victory spoke comes from his mother, Jan Sadler. He calls himself, his mom and sister "the trifecta."
"My mother was the rock for me and my sister. She was a school teacher and then she would teach piano lessons after school. She was going 16 hours a day," Brown said. "She led us definitely by example. She didn't say much but we saw her do anything for us. She was a big motivator for me.
"… Not being humble can get annoying. I just always thought, 'Be one of the guys and people will respect you more.'"
Brown wasn't thrilled with the rigors of the Coast Guard Academy when he was a freshman. He said having Larla on campus made a huge difference for him.
Even last year, Brown was benched for a quarter of a game for receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a previous game.
"You grow a little bit each game," Brown said. "I made a mistake. I had to own up to it."
Now George can't say enough about Brown as a leader.
"Part of the process is growing," George said. "He became an outstanding captain in the offseason."
Victory, meanwhile, who started the final seven games of the season for the Bears (3-7, 3-4) last year and won three, was 182-for-313 for 1,686 yards with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and was named NEFC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The Bears also return running back Jake Wawrzyniak, wide receiver Blake Thompson and four of their five offensive linemen, led by senior center Kevin Postiglione. Five all-NEFC performers return on defense, including first team selections Aaron Black on the line and strong safety Joe Rizzardi. Black, with 101 tackles and a team-high four sacks last year, is also a preseason first team All-American as named by USA College Football.
"We got more mature, We are more settled," George said. "But I told them at the meeting, 'That doesn't mean you're automatically better just because you're back. Compete with yourself every practice and yourself better.'"