The weight room at Speedway High School on the western edge of Indianapolis is a sliver of a room lined on either side with squat racks, benches and machines. The corridor between them is narrow enough that a lengthy man could almost stretch out his arms and touch the weights on either side at the same time. Most importantly, for Notre Dame wide receiver Justin Brent, it’s wedged between a hall of classrooms and the school’s basketball gym.
Justin Brent went through a daily routine of running back drills during a typical day of training last summer at Speedway.
As a freshman, Brent came to school at 6 a.m. each morning to shoot 1,000 free throws before the day’s first bell rang. He played football then, but his heart was set on succeeding in basketball. There’s a door that connects the gym to the weight room at half court. Every so often Jereme Howard — a local cop who volunteers as a strength coach for some of the students at Speedway — would fill the door’s wide frame with his own and holler out at Brent on the free throw line.
“You’re going to need this, you know,” he’d say, pointing to the weights behind him.
It took time, but the message eventually sunk in. Brent grew from a budding, skinny hoops player to a 6-3, 205-pound muscle-bound senior who was more than prepared physically to enroll at Notre Dame this January. When Irish head coach Brian Kelly got his first look at the early enrollee on campus this semester he found it hard to believe he was looking at a freshman.
“He had his shirt off this morning and he was running around, and he looks like a senior,” Kelly said Wednesday afternoon. “He is a physically gifted young man. You can see a lot of the accolades that are out there with him in terms of where he was ranked.”
Brent is ranked as the top player in Indiana by 247Sports, which gives Notre Dame the Hoosier State’s top prospect for the third consecutive season. He's considered to be one of the 100 best prospects in the country this year. His climb in national acclaim came later than most. He got there with an indefatigable work ethic and a dedicated supporting cast.
“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to go to Notre Dame. I’ve been blessed with all the rankings. I don’t want to take any of it for granted,” he said. “I want to keep working.”
Mike Carter first started to take an interest in Brent early in his sophomore year. Brent was a regular in the weight room by then. Carter was an assistant coach for the football team who also organized their lifting program. The military veteran was happy to arrange his schedule at his day job to make time to train with Brent when he saw the young receiver’s dedication.
In the winter, Carter and Brent moved one of their three daily workouts to the football field so they could set up agility drills and run passing routes. The field was covered in snow on their first day outdoors, so they brought a shovel and cleared a path large enough to work.
Brent ran for 1,315 yards as a running back during his senior season.
“He’ll take everything we say and he’ll work on it 50 times in a row out there on the field,” Carter said. “We wore out our football machine because I would throw him 200 balls a day, and then we’d run routes. He’s all about perfection. He doesn’t quit.”
Weekends were spent crisscrossing the Midwest in Carter’s van on the way to some camp or skills combine. He was still more than a year away from the flood of accolades and wanted to showcase his strength and precision against stiffer competition than the school’s Class 2A schedule would provide in the fall.
They drove to South Bend during the first weekend in July before Brent’s junior season, and Notre Dame surprised him with his first scholarship offer. The next day they traveled to a camp on Ohio State’s campus. Brent wasn’t happy with his performance in the morning, so he skipped lunch to do a little more work. Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer spotted Brent and the former wide receiver coach offered some pointers.
Meyer told Brent if he could find a way to get a little faster he could be a big-time prospect. On his drive back to Indianapolis, Brent committed to Notre Dame.
The speed comment, though, stuck in his craw. He wanted to get faster. He started working on getting a better start in the 40-yard dash and becoming more explosive. He turned to Howard, the police offer and competitive power lifter, to make his legs stronger.
Their workouts occasionally moved from the crowded school gym to a more serious set up in Howard’s basement. Brent made himself enough of a regular there that Howard’s less-than-friendly Rottweiler and bull mastiff mix stopped barking when he showed up.
“There’s not many people that can just walk into my house with the dog there,” Howard said. “J.B.’s not into partying. His boys will call him and see if he wants to hang out on a Friday night and he’ll say, ‘No, I’m training man.’ He’ll be hanging out with me, I’m 39 years old.”
Brent sometimes wondered why Carter, Howard and others at Speedway invested so much time with him, but he always trusted them implicitly.
“They have been there for me from the beginning,” he said. “They’ve always been there for me. They want the best for me, and that’s kind of hard to find.”
Brent’s time in the 40-yard dash dropped from 4.7 seconds to 4.52 seconds after a year of diligent training. The speed and all of the extra muscle that came with it paid off this past fall when he moved from wide receiver to running back for his team.
The Sparkplugs lost the all-state quarterback who threw 13 touchdown passes to Brent a year earlier. Head coach Denny Pelley said they didn’t have someone who could get the ball in their star’s hands consistently enough in the passing game. So Brent, who also started at safety and returned kicks, volunteered to move to the backfield.
“He came to me a little bit and said he was willing to go to tailback for us, and he kind of carried us,” Pelley said. “It was a different thing for him, but a good thing for him in the long run.”
Brent added hand-off and footwork drills to his growing daily workout regimen in the summer. He rushed for 1,315 yards in his first year at the position since junior high and made the Class 2A all-state first team. He emerged unscathed after an 8-4 season with a new physical edge with the ball in his hands.
Most wide receivers don’t have to fight for space like Brent did as a senior. He said he thinks the experience will help him power through tackles and pick up yards after contact in the future — a missing element in Notre Dame’s group of wide receivers.
He now joins a group of Irish pass catchers in flux. Top targets TJ Jones and tight end Troy Niklas are bound for the NFL. Brent will have a chance to latch on to the pack of rising contributors this spring while top returner DaVaris Daniels waits in academic purgatory for a semester. The door is open for a newcomer, and especially one with the physical qualifications that Brent brought to campus.
“I want to come in and contribute from the wide receiver position as much as possible,” he said. “I try not to do anything out of the ordinary, but at the same time I want to contribute. That’s my biggest goal.”
There’s no doubt he’ll work for it.