Nix’s three interceptions in only his second SEC road start made him an easy target for the Monday morning quarterbacks, and Brown wanted to set the record straight.
“You’re our quarterback, and we’ve got your back,” Brown told Nix. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else says or thinks, because all those people running their mouth right now couldn’t get out there and do what you do. All they can do is talk about it.
“The only people that matter are us, and we believe in you.”
It was vintage Brown, who’s always been one to take control.
“He’s got a presence about him … and not just on the football field,” said Auburn associate head coach/defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who recruited Brown and has been his position coach all four years.
No wonder Brown’s Auburn teammates revel in calling him “Baby Barack,” which is their way of reinforcing what everybody on the Plains already knows. The 6-foot-5, 318-pound Brown may be the most imposing interior defensive lineman in college football, a likely top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft and a future millionaire, but his true calling could transcend football.
In other words, there could be some political aspirations in Brown’s future when his playing days are over. One of Brown’s best friends is Ashton Barnes, who’s now at the Air Force Academy and was a captain with Brown on the Lanier High School football team in Sugar Hill, Georgia. They’ve known each other since elementary school, and Barnes’ father, Glennis, is a former lobbyist for Georgia Power.
“He would always talk to my dad about it and was always asking questions about what being a lobbyist was like,” said Barnes, who’s set to graduate from Air Force next May with a degree in systems engineering. “That’s the thing about Derrick. He wants to be involved, wants to be part of something that can make other people’s lives better. And when you think about the star football player, Derrick is so much more relatable than the stereotype a lot of us have of the star football player.”
Even during his high school recruitment as one of the most highly sought-after players in the country, Brown was always trying to steer coaches who would come to recruit him to other players on the team who weren’t getting as much attention.
“He’s a man of the people,” Barnes said.
And one of the most well-rounded football players Auburn’s Gus Malzahn has ever coached.
“He has a great head on his shoulders and doesn’t get too high or too low,” said Malzahn, who went on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes mission trip to the Dominican Republic with Brown and several other Auburn players in May. “I could see him doing a number of things and being successful at whatever he puts his mind to.”
Brown is far too intelligent to wade too deeply into the current state of affairs in American politics. But behind the scenes, he’s been steadfastly building his resume — when he’s not terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. Brown is the president of Auburn’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and also a member of the SEC’s Student-Athlete Leadership Council. He’s made the SEC’s academic honor roll multiple times throughout his career and was also a part of the student leadership team in high school.
“He’s always surrounded himself with the right kind of people, and that’s a lost art for a lot of kids,” Lanier High coach Korey Mobbs said. “He hung out with the kids who were going places, and he knew he was going places, too.”
Marlon Davidson, Brown’s defensive line cohort at Auburn and roommate, has his own nickname for Big No. 5.
“I call him, ‘Channel 5, Reporting Live,'” Davidson quipped. “Derrick has more information than anybody could ever dream of. He knows everything, and if you want to know anything, go to Derrick.
“He’s a guy who gets things done.”
Just ask the offensive linemen who’ve had the thankless task of trying to block Brown, oftentimes two at a time doing their best to neutralize him. He’s ranked No. 10 on Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board of top NFL draft prospects, and when he’s not blowing up double-teams and collapsing the pocket, he’s forcing fumbles, plucking them out of midair and rumbling the other way. See the Florida game.
“I was at Tennessee when Reggie White was there and at Alabama when Marcell Dareus was there,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “You just don’t see many guys walking around like that with that kind of size, power and athleticism. Derrick does things that only the best of the best of the best can do.”
Brown’s stat line for the season doesn’t begin to define his impact on an Auburn defense that has yet to give up more than three touchdowns in a game and has forced 10 turnovers in the past three games. Brown has five tackles for loss, including three sacks. He’s broken up three passes and also has two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“He’s just so disruptive and makes everybody around him better. You gotta know where he is on the field at all times,” said Garner, who coached Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud at Georgia, two defensive tackles who combined to play in 10 Pro Bowls in the NFL.
“Derrick is a combination of Seymour and Stroud. He has the athleticism of Seymour and the power of Stroud, and that’s a deadly combination. I remember talking to Bill Belichick one time, and he paid [Seymour] one of the best compliments. He said he could play every position on the defensive line, and that’s what Derrick can do and do it at a high level.”
Brown said the beauty of playing on Auburn’s defense, which will face a quarterback in LSU’s Joe Burrow who’s already accounted for 31 touchdowns this season, is that nobody is keeping count of individual stats.
“We don’t play a selfish defense. We celebrate like we all made the play,” Brown said. “We don’t boo-hoo about somebody double-teaming me or scheming around me or anybody else. We’re a family.”
Davidson, who leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss, added: “We have the mindset that nobody can block us, that you’re just not going to be able to block 3 [Davidson’s jersey number] and 5 [Brown’s]. If you see 3, don’t worry about it because 5 is coming. And if you see 5, then 3 is coming. Either he’s going to make the play, or I’m going to make the play or somebody else is. Whichever one you want to lie on top of you, that’s on you.”
As a leader, Brown has been just as valuable in keeping No. 9 Auburn in the College Football Playoff hunt heading into Saturday’s showdown on the road with No. 2 LSU. It’s a trait that comes naturally for Brown and something he learned from watching his parents, James and Martha Brown, and the way they raised their three kids. James is a court officer for the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Department. Martha has been a manager at Walmart for 15 years. Brown’s brother, Kameron, is a freshman linebacker at Auburn, and his sister, Mikaelia, is a junior at Lanier High and a student athletic trainer.
“My parents always instilled in us when so much is given to you by God that the way we give him the glory is by giving back,” said Brown, who’s been involved in Christmas charities such as Toys for Tots and Angel Tree. “That’s one of the hallmarks in our family.”
Make no mistake: There was plenty of tough love, too, and still is.
Brown might be the toast of Auburn, but at his family’s two-story home in Buford, Georgia, he’s simply the Browns’ firstborn son. Recently, Brown had some friends from the team stay over, and they left without folding the blankets on the couch. It didn’t take him long to hear from his father.
“My dad was in the Army before he was a sheriff’s officer and also worked at the state penitentiary,” Brown said. “He never accepted anybody being mediocre in our house, and that went for me, my brother and my sister. You learn that you always leave things better than you found them.”
While James might have the military background, Martha is hardly a softy. She played basketball at Holmes Community College in Mississippi, and she and James both earned degrees from Mississippi State. In fact, Martha was thinking about playing hoops for the Bulldogs when she learned that she was pregnant with Derrick.
As a youngster, Derrick also played basketball and was pretty good. But one night in a rec league game as a 9-year-old, he missed too many free throws for Martha’s liking in a tough loss. After the game, they didn’t go straight home. Instead, Martha took him to a nearby park.
“We didn’t have a basketball goal at our house, and I had to make 50 free throws before we left … and it was raining,” recalled Brown, who can laugh about it now.
That’s not all, either. A police officer even stopped by to check on them.
“It was close to 10 o’clock at night, and believe me, when that police officer came over there, he was like, ‘I ain’t messing with this woman,'” Martha said with a sheepish smile. “But Derrick started making his free throws after that.”
Brown and his siblings never had much luck, if any, in beating their mom in pickup games when they were kids.
“They would always say, ‘Mom, why don’t you ever let us win?'” Martha recounted. “I’d tell them, ‘The world’s not going to let you win, so why should I?'”
To this day, Brown wants a rematch.
“Now that she’s got a little age on her, I’m going to get her back out there,” Brown joked.
To many, the fact Brown even returned to Auburn for his senior year was surprising. He said some people went as far as to tell him he was crazy for not turning pro last year when everyone was projecting him as a lock to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
A big part of that decision was Brown’s son, Kai, who was born last December.
The bottom line for Brown: He was determined to get his degree and equally determined to set the right example for his son, who already weighs 25 pounds at 10 months and who, Malzahn jokes, is perched squarely atop Auburn’s recruiting board.
“I’m a big commitment guy,” said Brown, who never flinched in remaining at Lanier (which was a newer high school) when several other more established schools and football programs tried to lure him away. “You finish what you start, and now my son has the same kind of example I did growing up. That’s a forever bond. My parents have always been there for me.
“That’s just how I was built, my foundation.”
It’s yet another reason his coaches, teammates and friends know he’s somebody who’s not afraid to go against the grain and is always going to be true to who he is.
“Some of his best friends on the team are walk-ons,” Garner said. “He connects with everybody, and if he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
That’s not just rhetoric. Brown is set to receive his degree in business marketing in December. A few months later, he’ll walk across the stage at the NFL draft and shake commissioner Roger Goodell’s hand as a first-round pick and potentially one of the top defenders taken in the draft.
If you ask Brown the date of the NFL draft, he cocks his head and says he’s not sure. But ask him when Auburn’s commencement ceremonies will be later this year, and he cuts you off. He knows the time and date by heart.
“December 14th, 2 o’clock,” Brown said, beaming.
Not even a triple-team could keep him from picking up that diploma before he finally goes pro in smothering ball carriers and sacking quarterbacks. And after that, who knows?
But you can expect to be hearing from him.