- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Mack Brown's career at Florida has been slowed by a strained hamstring and a broken ankle.
But how he dealt with those injuries is the main reason he hasn’t met the expectations that come with being one of the country’s top high school players.
Brown didn't exactly attack his rehab the way buck linebacker Ronald Powell has over the past year. Brown got depressed, didn't work that hard and got out of shape, all of which led to just 40 carries in three seasons -- mostly in mop-up situations.
It took the arrival of another big-time running back recruit this spring for Brown finally to realize his career was slipping away.
"I was contemplating saying like, 'I'm still hurt,' " Brown said. "I wasn't trying to get in shape, really. Just being down on myself. But now, since more people are coming in, like Kelvin Taylor, that motivated me. Matt Jones motivated me. Now I'm back in shape for the first time."
It turns out an in-shape, motivated Brown is a pretty good tailback. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound redshirt junior beat out Taylor, the nation's No. 1 running back recruit in 2013 and the eighth-ranked player in the ESPN 300, to be the top backup to Jones. It's the highest he has been on the depth chart, and he'll get significant work in Florida's pro-style offense.
"I think in our league, you have to be realistic about how many backs you're going to carry through a season," coach Will Muschamp said. "You aren't going to get by in the SEC with just one. It's not going to happen. Certainly, Mack has distanced himself as the second-team back at this time. He's a guy we've got a lot of confidence in [and] that we expect big things from in the fall.
"I think he's done a nice job running the ball, protections, catching the ball and finishing plays."
Brown also says he has a complete understanding of the offense, which is something he didn't have as a freshman in 2010. He played in two of the first four games but suffered a hamstring injury and ended up redshirting.
He felt pretty good the following spring, especially with Muschamp's arrival and switch to the pro-style offense, but he suffered a broken ankle. While he recovered physically and played in all but one game that season, he wasn't the same runner.
The injury lingered in his head.
"I felt like ever since I broke my ankle I never really got back to my full potential," Brown said. "I couldn't run left, I couldn't make cuts like I wanted to, and without my cuts I couldn't spin. So I feel like that one injury really hurt me.
"Mentally, I am [finally recovered]. I haven't felt like that in two years, probably."
Fear is a good motivator. Brown was afraid of dropping so far down on the depth chart that he'd essentially disappear. The 6-2, 228-pound Jones was already ahead of him as a freshman in 2012, and nobody even mentioned Brown's name when talk turned to who would win the starting job in 2013. It was either Jones or Taylor, the state of Florida's all-time leading rusher (12,121 yards).
Brown's knowledge of the offense -- he finally has had the same offensive coordinator two years in a row -- and his improved pass protection helped him beat out Taylor. A better attitude helped, too, especially in the weight room.
"I’m getting my speed back," Brown said. "I feel like this is my first season that I'm back in shape."