PHILADELPHIA — The last time Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown was in the starting lineup for a regular-season game, he was a senior at Wichita East High School in Kansas.
Brown’s strange journey to the NFL likely will feature another twist against Carolina on Monday night. Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy is expected to miss the game after suffering a concussion last Sunday at Washington. Eagles coach Andy Reid announced Wednesday that if McCoy cannot play, Brown will start.
“I’m excited,” Brown said Wednesday. “It’s been a while since I’ve started a game and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity. I never expected something like this to happen so soon in my career.”
Brown was a star in high school. Most recruiting services ranked him as one of the top two running backs in the country along with current Cleveland Browns rookie Trent Richardson.
But while Richardson went on to win two national titles with Alabama and was the third overall pick in last April’s draft, Brown’s college career fizzled and the Eagles took him in the seventh round as the 200th pick.
Brown got off to a promising start in college, rushing for 460 yards on 101 carries as a freshman at the University of Tennessee but decided to transfer to Kansas State. After sitting out the 2010 season, he rushed for 16 yards in Kansas State’s 2011 opener against Eastern Kentucky but then quit the team.
“Even though I didn’t play much in college, I never stopped working,” Brown said. “When I left Kansas State, it wasn’t like I went home and sat on the couch. I always felt like I could play in this league and just wanted an opportunity to prove it. I can’t say I wish things would have turned out any differently for me because I’m here.”
The 6-foot, 220-pounder was one of four running backs to make the Eagles’ roster, along with McCoy, Dion Lewis and rookie free agent Chris Polk.
Lewis, a fifth-round pick last year, was supposed to be McCoy’s top backup but suffered a strained hamstring at the end of the preseason. Brown took his spot and played so well that Lewis has been a non-factor this season. He didn’t play in seven of the first 10 games and has yet to have a single carry. With Polk hampered by a sprained toe, Lewis will be Brown’s backup against the Panthers.
“It’s been a little disappointing for me,” Lewis said. “My hamstring (injury) was a little bit of a setback, but I was hoping to play more. I’m hoping to get more opportunities Monday and try to make the most of them.”
Brown primarily has been used as a short-yardage back this season, rushing for 141 yards on 32 carries (4.4 yards per carry). His best game was against New Orleans on Nov. 5, when he reeled off a 40-yard run — the Eagles’ longest run from scrimmage this season — during a 28-13 loss to the Saints.
He’s hoping that getting extended playing time against the Panthers will enable him to produce more big runs. Because McCoy has been the primary back, Brown hasn’t gotten more than five carries in a game.
“My first goal when I got here was just to make the team, whether it was as a backup, practice squad or whatever,” Brown said. “Then I just wanted to do whatever the coaches told me. I didn’t know what to expect when the season started. I knew I would be LeSean’s backup, but I had to be ready for anything. It’s a long season. Things happen. People get hurt. I just want to contribute any way I can to help the team win.”
Brown will be among at least five rookies in the starting lineup against the Panthers, joining defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, quarterback Nick Foles, tackle Dennis Kelly and linebacker Mychael Kendricks.
Foles is expected to start his second straight game in place of Michael Vick, who is also sidelined with a concussion. Neither McCoy nor Vick practiced Wednesday and both are in Phase One of the recovery process.
“I feel confident playing with whoever’s on the field with me,” Foles said Wednesday. “We’re here for a reason. Injuries happen and when they do, guys have to step up, regardless of age.”
Foles, a third-round pick out of the University of Arizona, made his first career start against the Redskins and struggled. He completed 21-of-46 passes for 204 yards with two interceptions and no TD passes in a 31-6 loss.
Since taking over for Vick a week earlier against Dallas, Foles has completed 43-of-78 passes (55.1 percent) for 423 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and a lost fumble.
“I love having the ball in my hand, but it’s up to me to make good decisions with it,” Foles said. “I’ve had too many turnovers and I’ve missed some throws that I need to hit. I’m not going to make excuses. I need to play better.”
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