AUBURN, Ala. — It didn’t take Greg Brown long to gain an understanding of the players in his meeting room when he joined Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn this spring.
On paper, the longtime coach saw a group of defensive backs with valuable experience and accolades. He had built-in leadership, courtesy of the senior trio of Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin. He had younger players who’d made significant contributions and earned All-SEC honors in Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis.
Even Jeremiah Dinson, Jamel Dean and Jayvaughn Myers — players who’d been sidelined by various knee injuries at Auburn — offered an understanding of Kevin Steele’s system. They’d been groomed by outgoing senior Josh Holsey on how to make a strong comeback.
Brown also picked up on things he could find only by spending time with his guys.
“We’ve got some guys with really high character, high value, moral value,” Brown said. “Guys who study the game, guys that are gym rats. They like it. They want to be around it all the time. And when it gets time to get on the field and compete, they go for it. They’re going for the jugular.”
Improvement, especially during the next 15 spring practices was key to Auburn’s returning defensive backs — and that’s where he came in.
Over his nearly four decades of coaching, Brown had realized something else: The initial impression he’d give his players would be equally as important.
Brown’s hope was that his new unit quickly would discern he was someone they could talk to about life, football or some combination of the two. But Brown didn’t have a strategy to make a quick transition. He knew it would happen naturally.
“They can feel it right away. They can sense it. They know if something’s phony or forced or if it’s a real deal,” Brown said. “Most players know right away upon first meeting somebody. It seems that way to me at every level. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking with 8-year-olds playing peewee football or a 16-year veteran playing in the NFL. Guys know.”
Brown’s resume spoke for itself. He’d coached three Jim Thorpe Award winners and spent 15 seasons coaching in the NFL. He’d spent time with Kevin Steele at Alabama, and Steele had attained respect early in his 2016 turnaround.
Sure enough, players almost instantaneously established a personal and football connection with Brown.
“He’s been fun for us. He’s very laid back kind of coach,” Ruffin said. “He just enjoys being around his players and giving us the knowledge he already has. To have a coach that is always there for you and has you best interests at heart is very comforting to know.”
The most striking commonality in the meeting room? The desire to win in 2017, along with the love and appreciation for the game.
“To have a coach we can relate to,” Ruffin said. “That we can respect because he respects us, helps without a doubt because it helps immediately build a relationship with him.”
Brown’s expertise served as a catalyst, strengthening his new relationships fast.
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“The way he’s seen it done through years past he’s definitely coached a lot longer than I’ve been alive,” Ruffin said. “He has that experience and he has that knowledge. So anything that he can tell me to help me better my craft going forward I’m more than receptive to hear.”
All the pieces have started fitting together this spring. Steele has been pleased with several “big days” of workouts where his players snagged takeaways and even scored on defense.
Steele’s bringing consistency after several years of defensive staff turnover. Brown’s experience working alongside Steele in Tuscaloosa prepared him when it came to terminology and schemes.
Improvement has been evident. Standards are higher after last season and there’s a long way to go before fall camp. Steele is confident his defensive backs will continue making strides under Brown’s direction.
“Greg is a smart coach, you don’t coach 17 years in the National Football League if you don’t know what you are doing,” Steele said. “Like I said, NFL not for long that includes coaches too. You spend 17 years in the National Football League you are obviously intelligent and have a lot of ideas and are a very good technique coach.”