BUFORD, Ga. — Derrick Brown’s large frame, wide shoulders and tight handshake leave the impression this man can not be pushed, let alone knocked on his back.
The Auburn freshman was the crown jewel of the Tigers’ 2016 signing class. The 5-star defensive tackle is expected to contribute as a freshman and develop into the next big thing in the SEC, but it’s difficult to believe expectations ever hit this level even for Brown. He still remembers the fallout after he received his first scholarship offer (East Carolina) as a sophomore at Lanier (Buford, Ga.) High. He grew confident and started traveling to camps to face off against the best players in the country.
“One time I got put on my back,” Brown told SEC Country a few days before reporting to Auburn for summer workouts. “At that point, I said I needed to do something about this.”
Cotton’s wake-up call arrived following his sophomore season, when he admits to having a big head because of the scholarship offers and rising interest across the country. He participated in a typical summer camp, with several future college stars. That’s when he went 1-on-1 with future Alabama offensive guard Lester Cotton.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Brown said.
The whistle blew. They moved their feet, thrust their hands forward and then — boom! — Brown was slammed into the ground.
“I love that story,” said Martha Brown, Derrick’s mother. “After that camp, my child had a whole different view of things. It was like, OK, I’m not the biggest and baddest thing any more. There was a guy who knocked me on my butt, mom.”
The message was clear to Derrick Brown. “You have to know there’s always someone out there bigger and better than you are,” Martha Brown said.
Suddenly the big man on campus was not so high on himself. “At first, I kinda got a big head. I’m not going to lie,” Derrick Brown said “Over time, I was like that for three or four months, but I was humbled after that. I took a whole other aspect and didn’t let it use you and be something you’re not. You have to be who you are.”
That one moment — that tumble to the turf in front of everyone at the camp — shifted Derrick Brown’s outlook, jump-starting the work ethic that helped him become a 5-star prospect and Auburn’s crown jewel in the 2016 signing class two years later.
“That was the motivation that he needed,” Lanier High coach Korey Mobbs said. “Sometimes, as a high schooler, when you’re a top, top recruit, it’s tough to be pushed every day at practice because you can play with high pad level if you’re a defensive lineman and you still win. But that, to me, is the benefit of going to things like that.
“Now, there’s some negatives to it as well. But, for him to be able to process that and be motivated, it was huge. He came back and was truly determined to be the best player in the state and fortunately he was recognized as that, but I think he also realizes that means nothing now. He’s going to get to Auburn and he’s going to be another guy. He’s got to be willing to work.”
There will be someone bigger, badder and stronger than Brown when the 6-foot-3, 232-pound true freshman faces off against a veteran offensive lineman this summer. Like that summer in 2014, this is a summer of work for Brown.
“You definitely want to walk in (and contribute) but you want to be humbled,” Derrick Brown said. “But at the same time you have to know what it takes. Just talking to people and asking them how they viewed it coming in, they say you’ve got to be humble. You have to work as hard as you can. You have to be more competitive than you’ve ever been in your life.”
Motivation or not, a few years ago, Brown didn’t have many options when it was not yet known if he would become a top prospect. His father was ready to send him off to the military if a college scholarship never materialized. Then ECU called in the middle of his sophomore season.
“It was a big shocker because I was talking to my dad the weekend before and all I could say to him was I hope I get an offer my senior year,” Derrick Brown said.
Brown arrived at Auburn last week. He’s a few pounds heavier than he’d like, but knows strength coach Ryan Russell will fix that in summer conditioning drills. What makes Brown special is his speed. He terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 29.5 sacks in his final two seasons at Lanier High, broke up 17 passes and returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
“His first step off the ball is what separates him from other people,” Mobbs said.
Off the field, “he surrounds himself with the right kind of people,” which Mobbs believes “is a lost art today.”
Derrick Brown expects to contribute as a freshman, but he knows the journey could be longer than some expect and success may not arrive immediately, even if outside expectations are extremely high.
“Expectations are meant to be what they are for other people,” Derrick Brown said. “For myself, I hold myself to where I feel like I was a 5-star in high school but that journey is over. That ended back in 2015. From 2016 on, I feel like I’m just Derrick Brown and I’m trying to be like every other person in college football right now: trying to make it somewhere.”
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