Speed rush: Pierce-Brewster brings quickness to Syracuse defensive line

Andrew Renneisen | Photo Editor

Markus Pierce-Brewster had a breakout season at City College of San Francisco in 2011, earning All-American honors. He has stepped into a starting role in his first season at Syracuse.

Markus Pierce-Brewster did his job perfectly. The City College of San Francisco defensive end stayed in his lane against the spread option and took out the fullback at the 5 yard line.

He turned his head and watched the developing play, waiting for his teammates to bring down College of San Mateo quarterback Miles Freeman.

But no one did.

“The guy’s got nothing but space to the goal line,” CCSF head coach George Rush said. “He turns around, runs him down and tackles him on the other 5; runs 90 yards for a tackle and makes it — 90 yards.”

Rush calls Pierce-Brewster the fastest player he’s ever coached, but he points to that play last October as an example of his relentless motor. Rush says he played “full blast” on every down and that he’s the hardest-working player to pass through his proud junior college program.

That combination of speed and work ethic fueled a breakout 2011 season at CCSF, where Pierce-Brewster racked up 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks en route to earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in California. It translated to a starting spot on the Syracuse defensive line this season. And though he has yet to burst onto the scene as he did in junior college, the 6-foot-3, 248-pound defensive end has impressed the SU coaching staff with his speed and all-out style — traits he developed as a standout track athlete at Sweetwater High School in California.

“Track has really instilled in me a certain amount of pride in speed, and I’ll never let that go,” Pierce-Brewster said. “I don’t care if I’m on the field with Usain Bolt, I’m always going to believe I’m the fastest person on the field.”

Pierce-Brewster started running track as a freshman to pass the time.

His track coach, Tim Latham, witnessed Pierce-Brewster run opponents down 100 yards to secure victories in relays, leaving them and their teammates demoralized along the sideline. He blew others away as they heckled him when he took the baton.

“I think it’s little things like that, little moments like that where Markus started realizing his potential with hard work,” Latham said.

The summer before his junior year started the transformation.

Standing on the Manley Field House track, Pierce-Brewster shook his head and covered his eyes with both hands. Then, a slight smile formed as he thought back to the grueling workouts.

“Oh man,” Pierce-Brewster said before pausing. “We used to have nightmares about it.”

Latham instituted a new workout program run on a beeper system mastered by legendary Baylor track and field coach Clyde Hart. Cones served as markers around the track. The beeper kept the pace.

They ran about 17 200s the first day. Each one was completed in about 30 seconds and followed by a few minutes of rest. It was a brutal and shocking day for Pierce-Brewster and his teammates.

“I was a junior in high school thinking, ‘Is this what I want to be doing for my summer?’” Pierce-Brewster said. “I could be at the beach right now.”

Until then, Pierce-Brewster said he didn’t understand the value of hard work. And as much as he hated the workouts, he credits them with shaping his work ethic. By Pierce-Brewster’s senior year, he owned the school record in the 400 at 48 seconds, and track had become a passion for him.

He considered pursuing the sport in college, but after talking with Latham and his brother, Ernest Pierce, he decided his future was in football. Pierce-Brewster enrolled at Grossmont College (Calif.) near his hometown of National City. Though his athletic performance wasn’t an issue, he said he wasn’t ready for the transition mentally in his first year of college in 2009.

His brother said Pierce-Brewster needed to get away from home to take that next step. Pierce-Brewster took a year off, staying with his brother and his family in the San Francisco area. He watched his niece and trained with his brother as he weighed his options for the 2011 season.

“I just tried to give him more responsibility for certain things, making him understand what college football’s going to demand and ask of you,” Pierce said.

Pierce-Brewster got back on the field at CCSF that spring. It had been nearly nine months since Pierce-Brewster had played at Grossmont, and he said he felt sluggish at the first workouts.

But the first time Rush saw Pierce-Brewster, he saw a special player.

“You don’t see guys that are as big and as fast as he is with the work ethic, the whole package,” Rush said. “You don’t see it very often. I’ve never had anybody really quite like him, and we’ve had good guys here.”

Those unique abilities were on display on Pierce-Brewster’s touchdown-saving tackle against San Mateo.

It was late in the second quarter and City College of San Francisco held a 10-0 lead. The Bulldogs needed to go 94 yards to cut into the lead and set up in their option formation on first-and-10.

The quarterback, Freeman, kept the ball and turned upfield. A safety overran the play and Freeman was on his way to a sure touchdown.

Until Pierce-Brewster took off.

“I didn’t think I was going to get him and then something inside of me got angry,” Pierce-Brewster said. “I literally took that personally, like, ‘No, you’re not going to outrun me,’ so I just really turned on the burners.

“And I remember as soon as I tackled him, it felt like I had just finished a 400, which is probably the worst pain you’ll ever feel because your legs are on fire.”

San Mateo scored a touchdown to cap the drive, but CCSF left College Heights Stadium with its perfect record intact. Pierce-Brewster and his team remained unbeaten the rest of the way and won the 2011 national championship.

After his All-American campaign, Pierce-Brewster chose to attend Syracuse, saying he was sold on the team’s plans for him within the scheme. Pierce-Brewster could see himself lined up on the edge using his speed to disrupt opposing offenses in the backfield.

Pierce-Brewster did just that in the opener against Northwestern, making seven tackles and recovering a fumble. But he said he felt he took a step back against Southern California.

“He is his harshest critic,” SU defensive line coach Tim Daoust said. “I might tell him good job, but he’ll tell me, ‘Well, I did this, Coach.’ He’s a perfectionist, so that keeps him up at night, and he’s always constantly working to get better.”

Daoust compared him to former SU defensive end Chandler Jones. Rush, who has coached his share of NFL players at CCSF, said he’d be shocked if Pierce-Brewster didn’t play professionally.

But Pierce-Brewster knows he’s far from achieving his potential.

“This is just the beginning,” Pierce-Brewster said. “Where I’m at right now won’t compare to where I’m at when the season ends and where I’m at next season.

“I’ll be on a completely different level.”


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