Photo: Karl L. Moore Central wide receiver Justin Brownlee (34) makes the catch as he's upended by Dacula's C. J. Mayes (28) during a game this season.
When Justin Brownlee heard he was moving to wide receiver, he called up his friend Malachi Jones, the former Central Gwinnett record-breaking receiver.
"I told him I was going to break his records," Brownlee said.
It was a bold prediction, considering Brownlee had never played the position before and Jones set the county record for catches in a year.
But Brownlee turned in the greatest season for a Gwinnett County receiver of all time and helped Central to its first winning season since 2006.
The Central Gwinnett senior set the single-season receiving record with 1,337 yards and was one catch behind Jones with 81 receptions.
"With 1,300 yards and the impact he had in every game, no, I had no idea he would perform at that level," Central Gwinnett head coach Todd Wofford said.
Jones, who signed with Appalachian State, set the county single-season reception record a year ago with 82 catches and had 1,052 yards receiving.
It was a lot of production from one player that Central had to replace. Wofford saw a diamond in the rough in Brownlee, who grew up playing running back and was a defensive back for Central last season.
"In the spring, I didn't know what he could do," Wofford said. "I saw glimpses that he had explosion and was fast. With Malachi and the guys we had leaving, he was just the logical choice to me."
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Brownlee struggled early learning the position. The previous year he played corner back and safety for Central, so he was used to guarding receivers and not playing one. He struggled to catch the ball consistently early on, but never got down about it.
"Every time I dropped the ball, I didn't put my head down," Brownlee said.
Instead he stayed positive and by the end of the summer the number of drops dwindled.
His first game at receiver he scored three touchdowns, but it was his second game that was a breakout performance. Against perennial playoff participant Clarke Central, Brown had 251 yards receiving.
"I really put on a show. That was a fun game," Brownlee said.
The performance solidified the change in positions.
"It was a good idea moving him," Wofford said with a laugh. "I just kept my fingers crossed that he would keep progressing and getting better and he did."
Brownlee had eight games with 100-plus yards receiving, including a pair of 250-plus yard games. He was held to less than 100 yards in his first game against Collins Hill and against 2011 state champion Grayson. Central's starting quarterback Eman Westmoreland was also hurt in the game.
Brownlee had 258 yards receiving in the final game of the regular season against Shiloh. The performance broke the county single-season receiving record, the oldest record in the book. Central Gwinnett's Kip Ruark held the previous mark with 1,270 yards in 1980. Brownlee's 1,337 yards ranks in the top 25 all-time in the state.
"He's a very good athlete out there," Wofford said. "He's a great athlete playing receiver right now."
Brownlee's breakout season has drawn the attention of college recruiters. He's received interest from several schools, but no official offers. Wofford thinks that will change next month. In six months of practice at receiver he put up impressive numbers. Imagine what he could do next year.
"Being this was his first year, the sky is the limit for him," Wofford said. "If he did this well, I think he just scratched the surface on what he could do."
THE BROWNLEE FILE
Who: Justin Brownlee
School: Central Gwinnett
Dream job: Play in the NFL
Favorite Sports team: New Orleans Saints
Favorite TV show: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
• Broke Gwinnett County single-season receiving record with 1,337 yards-- Caught 81 passes for the second most in a season in Gwinnett
• Had eight 100-yard receiving games, including a pair of 250-yard games
• Runs 4.5-second 40-yard dash
• Maintains 2.9 GPA
• Moved to Lawrenceville from New Orleans in 2004