Derrick Brown is built to destroy. The 6-foot-5, 326-pound defensive tackle out of Auburn University was all but unblockable last season, ravaging his way to unanimous All-American honors. For offensive linemen, scouting reports on Brown read like a horror novel.
“Blackhole of a presence on the interior.” “Freight train of a first step.” “Can toss opponents aside like last week’s trash.” Watch his 2020 NFL Combine workout and you’ll be amazed at how quickly that much mass can move. So it’s no wonder Carolina Panthers first-year head coach Matt Rhule chose Brown as the man around which to rebuild his defense. Rhule took Brown with Carolina’s first draft pick, No. 7 overall, and started the process of selecting seven defensive players in the draft, marking the first time in modern NFL history a team has done that.
It is clear, however, that Rhule has tapped Brown to lead his squad. And though Brown is a beast of a three-down player, it is his character that Rhule expects to set the biggest example. Brown and girlfriend Tayla Main have a 1-year-old son, Kai. No one would have faulted Brown for leaving school after his junior year to be an NFL draft pick and earn millions to take care of Kai and the rest of his family. But Brown stayed at Auburn to earn his degree in marketing and fulfill his obligation to the football team. Rhule watched Brown put the risk of injury aside to play in his final game as a college athlete, the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, which was relatively meaningless for both Brown and the Tigers.
“Here’s a guy who came back for his senior year,” Rhule told ESPN. “He’s a consensus top-10 pick. He goes to play in the bowl. It’s not the playoffs. He’s playing against the University of Minnesota. He plays every snap except for maybe a couple as his normal rotation.”
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele calls Brown a “finisher.” “Whatever he starts, he give it his all,” Steele told ESPN. “He practices like that. He goes to school like that. That’s who he is.”
Brown, for his part, says staying in school to graduate was the best decision he ever made. “I have my degree in my hand and I was a top-10 pick,” he says. “Can’t ask for much more in this life.”
Before committing to play football at Auburn, Brown was actually also a basketball star at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Georgia, which could account for his freakish athleticism. He describes his basketball style as “dominant,” which is no surprise when you consider Brown, already 315 pounds in high school, could dunk at will. But when Brown realized he had the potential to someday play in the NFL, he chose to focus on football.
At Auburn, Brown played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2016, logging 11 tackles, 1.5 for loss. As a sophomore in 2017, he became a full-time starter for the Tigers, tallying 56 tackles, nine for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games. In 2018, SEC coaches voted him second-team all-conference, after he started all 13 Auburn games, compiling 48 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and two pass breakups from the middle of Auburn’s defense. As a senior in 2019, Brown had 55 tackles, 12.5 for loss, four sacks and four pass breakups causing two fumbles. He won the 2019 Lott IMPACT Trophy, which goes to the defensive player who has the biggest IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity). He also earned first-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-SEC honors and was a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy.
STACK caught up with Brown as he prepared for the pre-draft process at EXOS in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
STACK: What are your first memories of playing football?
Derrick Brown: I first started playing football when I was 9. I was excited about it until we got to the season. We were going to practice every day, and I was like, ‘Man, this is too much.’ So, I think the next year, I told my dad, ‘Nah. I’m not going to go. I’m just going to play basketball.’ My dad didn’t take too kind to that. So, I ended up playing football and really didn’t grow a love for the game until about my sophomore year (of high school). I was playing because all my buddies were playing. And then, sophomore year, I got my first offer, and I was like, ‘OK. This is going to be the way I’m going to be able to take care of my family one day.’
What did you not like about football at first?
It was fun to hit, I never had a problem with the hitting aspect, but it was way hotter than being in the basketball gym. I played basketball before I played football. It’s just one of those things, you got to grow to love the heat.
How did that first offer change things?
In my household, my dad always talks about ability. So, I had the ability to be able to obtain a scholarship. So, as he saw it, either you get a scholarship, or else, you can go to Paris Island, South Carolina. That’s where the Marines are. That’s how we grew up, though. Tough love.
Coming off my sophomore year, I started getting a lot more attention from schools. That’s when I was like, I want to be the number one player in the country. I got to number one player in the state, but never reached my goal of number one player in the country. So when I got to college, I felt like I had a lot more to prove.
You mention basketball. What was Derrick Brown the basketball player like?
I was dominant. I was a big guy, but I had a mean jump shot from the corner. Just being able to play my game was my favorite part about it…I think it contributed to a lot of footwork stuff in football. A lot of guys that don’t play basketball or do any other sport, they’re kind of straight football mobility, you can see it. If you go to the rec and play with some my teammates, you can immediately see, ‘OK, buddy. You ain’t played basketball too much.’
What athletes did you grow up admiring?
I was a basketball guy. So, of course, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant. Football guys, you hear about the Warren Sapps, the Vince Wilforks. Not flashy guys, but dominant, just absolutely dominant in the game. Deacon Jones. Guys like that. Just real throwbacks. Ndamukong Suh. DeMarcus Ware. Those guys.
What was your typical high school day like?
We started school at 7:10 a.m. at (Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Georgia). I’m up and out the house by at least 6:15. Weight training first period. Even during basketball season, I had to weight train during first period, then I had basketball practice after school. It was a chaotic schedule, but it was one that I grew to love.
How important has the weight room been in your development?
I always took pride in being really strong, but I mean, being really strong was something I kind of had—that natural, country strong. It was something where I didn’t have to work my strongest at the beginning. But I started wanting to set goals and be able to hit certain weights. Going from high school to college, I mean, I was able to blow that stuff out of the water. I like being the strongest man, and that’s how I try to work in the weight room.
When I first got to Auburn, I wanted to break the Squat record. It was previously held by Devaroe Lawrence. Sophomore spring, I was able to break it—590 pounds. That was one of the things I came in and said, “I want to do this, and I’m going to do it.” And I did it. When I did it, man, I just felt (overwhelmed) and accomplished. It put a big smile on my face.
In a tweet, you recalled being told you only got offers because you were big. Is that true?
Yeah. When certain things are said to you in life, you don’t forget. I remember I put something on Twitter or whatever, thanking the school for whoever offered me, and I guess some people in my high school were like, “That’s showboating.” It’s like one of those things where I just grew a chip on my shoulder, and I’ve been out to prove everybody wrong ever since I started focusing on this. To finally be able to say what I want to say about it, I hope the message got to him.
My sophomore year, I got invited to come watch a game. It was actually the Prayer at Jordan-Hare. That was my first ever recruiting visit. My father, my head coach, my defensive coordinator, we went down to watch Auburn-Georgia that day. It’s funny because that’s where it all started, and that’s where it ended for me. A lot of people said, ‘Why don’t you go to Georgia? You’ve been in Georgia most of your life.’ Or, ‘Why don’t you go to Mississippi State?’, because both of my parents graduated from Mississippi State. Well, I wanted to start my own thing. I think I made the right decision wholeheartedly.
Brown had a front row seat when Auburn defeated Georgia on a last-minute deflected Hail Mary in 2013
I wanted to be an All-American. Making the decision to come back to school last year, I would’ve never been able to fulfill my dreams without that. I graduated in December and I was named a unanimous All-American. There’ve only been 10 guys to do that in Auburn’s history, and I was the 10th. Putting my name in that category with those guys, I mean, it just brought nothing but smiles to my face.
How much has your body changed since your freshman year at Auburn?
When I got to Auburn, I was like 340 with a bad body fat percentage. By the time I finished the first summer conditioning program, I was 303. Lost 37 pounds in like three months. When I had went home right before fall camp, my mom was like, ‘You look so…Your face is just so…just skinny!” I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s all that running every day.” We ran religiously my first year. Man, man, man, I didn’t know.
Who played the biggest role in your development at Auburn?
My defensive line coach, coach (Rodney) Garner, he never changed up on me. He pushed me day in and day out. By my senior year, he still treated me like I was a freshman out there. It’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily see it when you first get there because it’s tough love, (but) by the time you get done, you appreciate it so much. He pushed me for four years. Now I’m able to go out and be able to make a living for my family and do what I love. Being able to choose Auburn, out of all of the schools I got ready to choose, Coach G is the only defensive line coach that’s still at the same school. That just speaks highly of who he is and what he does.
People like to say the film speaks for itself. What does your film say about you?
That I’m dominant. That I try to correct any inconsistencies and take over games. I had a few games at the beginning of the season where I felt like I wasn’t playing like myself. I had to really kind of assess myself out there in game two and try to take over. That’s what I tried to do on the backend of the season, because for us, every game’s a money game in the SEC.
What inconsistencies did you specifically try to address?
I got tired of people talking about, ‘He has flashes. He shows flashes.’ I got tired of hearing that. And this year, I just tried to clearly take over games, the first quarter through the fourth. What helped a lot with that was being conditioned. Even after fall camp was over, Coach G would still run us. That’s one of those things where, at the time, you’re like, “Man, we got to run suicides again after fall camp.” And everybody else was going back to the building. But being out there and being able to take those substantial amounts of snaps, it was something I was ready for.
You have a son, Kai. How has Kai changed your outlook on life?
My son is the biggest blessing in my life. He’s 1 now, and he tears up everything. He plays in everything. Just anything he can get his hands on, he finds enjoyment with. It’s fun because now he’s starting to get to the point where he’s trying to walk. So, we’re like, ‘Okay. We need him walking.’ And as soon as he starts walking, then I don’t know. I’ll feel old then. I feel old now. When he hit 1, I was like, ‘God. I got a 1-year-old, man.’ It’s crazy.
Derrick and Kai take the Tiger Walk into Jordan-Hare Stadium
Every time I get up in the morning, I got to take care of my family. My dad told me growing up, ‘You don’t always want to do what you need to do.’ I wake up, see him laying in bed, see him at peace and comfort, and I’ve got to be able to keep that thing going. I’ve got to go out and do the hard part so that, one day, he never has a question about his dad. He can sit and say, “My dad did this. This is how I’m going to do it.”
Kameron, your younger brother, joined Auburn as a linebacker last season. What was that like?
Being able to celebrate in the locker room with your brother is an awesome feeling. It’s one of those things that my parents were just so happy to see us be able to play together my senior year and his freshman year. I was just blessed to have that opportunity to be with my little brother again.
Derrick and Kameron Brown
We hadn’t taken a snap together since the fall of 2015, and just being on the same field again, it was just something that you can’t really describe. It’s a mind-blowing experience, and I’m hoping the best for him now on. I’ll just kind of be watching over him, even from a distance now, making sure he’s doing right. I think he’ll have a great time and a good career there.
You were a captain at Auburn. What makes you a leader?
I feel like I was a leader on and off the field. I led with my play, and being able to have an impact on people is very (important) to me, because it’s one of those things where I’ve had so many people impact my life.
One of my buddies, we’re really good buddies now, but when he first got to Auburn, I started messing with him, playing around with him. I was just joking with him, but he took me serious. I was like, ‘Barry, calm down.’ He was like, ‘You gotta understand, man. We’re just coming in here, and you’re Derrick Brown to us. Last year, we were fans. We’re walk-ons.’ It’s funny to see it full circle like that, but my best friends on the team—I got best friends that are scholarship guys, best friends that are walk-ons. I always tried to make everybody feel like they’re equal. I don’t like when people try to downplay people. That’s not cool.
What goes through your mind during a tough workout?
I got a kid. I ain’t got no choice. I ain’t got no choice, because my son didn’t ask to be here. I brought him here, and my job is to take care of him. I wear that job as being a father with a lot of pride on my shoulder.
Where does your confidence come from?
I think just over time, just learning the game. I feel like I’m able to compete with whoever. So, whenever I get ready to line up, I mean, I’m all about it. You’re going to get my best effort. I hope you give me yours. At the end of the day, somebody’s best effort won’t quite match up.
For the team that drafts you, what kind of player will they be getting?
They’re going to get a guy who’s consistent. They’re going to get a guy that doesn’t have to be talked to, doesn’t have to be pushed to work harder. That’s something that’s just built into me.
You almost quit football. Now you’re a top NFL prospect. Do you ever reflect on that?
Yeah. I’m definitely thankful my parents didn’t let me make such a stupid mistake. Now I look at it and I’m like, ‘Man, I could’ve lost everything back then for one decision.’ But my parents never accepted anybody in our household being mediocre. That’s just a testament to how they raised us.
If you could give one piece of advice to high school athletes, what would it be?
Trust in the process. I see a lot of guys nowadays, even in college, getting upset and wanting to enter the transfer portal. Everybody wants to find a new way or quit something, and a lot of guys don’t believe in the process. At first when I got to Auburn, it was hard to understand. When you’re young, it’s hard to understand the whole process of everything. But like coaches keep telling you, it’s a process.
A lot of kids don’t listen. I was one of those guys. When I was in high school, I used to think I knew everything, but when I got to college, I got woken up. And if you can avoid that in high school, then it’ll be very beneficial for you. Just listen, continue to work hard, and take everything in you can. Enjoy the moment. Be patient.
Photo Credit: Matthew Visinsky/Getty Images, @DerrickBrownAU5, Auburn Athletics