AUBURN — There was nothing but open field in front of Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy when he leaked out of the backfield and turned his head back toward quarterback Matt Corral early in the second quarter.
Auburn’s linebackers were sitting back in an effort to keep the visitors from converting third-and-12, and its defensive backs were otherwise engaged.
But when Ealy turned back upfield, there was no longer any open space in front of him. There was only Derrick Brown — a 6-foot-5, 318-pound behemoth who had materialized seemingly out of thin air — careening toward him with a full head of steam, more runaway freight train than defensive tackle.
Brown collided with the 5-foot-9, 180-pound freshman at full speed, burying him for a loss of 4 yards.
“He was a little shocked,” Brown said after Auburn's 20-14 win.
That’s because Brown wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to be on the sideline — that’s where he was when Ole Miss lined up to snap the ball. But defensive end Big Kat Bryant had to run off the field just before the snap because he was having issues with his helmet, and as soon as he crossed the boundary, Brown sprinted on just to make sure the defense had 11 bodies on the field.
He ended up in the perfect place at the perfect time to make the stop.
“That is the funniest play I’ve ever seen out of all the years I’ve played football. He ain’t even see him coming,” freshman Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe said. “He’s looking one second, there’s nobody there, and then he turns around again — boom.”
Just add it to the list of ridiculous things that Brown has made look routine through the first nine games of his senior season.
Brown’s stat totals aren’t earth-shattering. He has 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks so far. Those totals rank fourth, second and second on Auburn’s defense, respectively. He doesn’t rank among the nation’s top-100 players in any of those categories — to compare, Ohio State defensive tackle Chase Young ranks tied for fourth with 15½ tackles for loss and first with 13½ sacks.
But the impact the standout Auburn defensive tackle has made during his senior season can’t fully be measured in a box score.
Take the Tigers’ season-opening win over Oregon in Arlington, Texas. Brown finished that game with three tackles and nothing else. If you go back and re-watch that game, though, you’ll see no shortage of plays where Brown is powering his way into the backfield and throwing blockers around like rag dolls. He was a significant factor in the defense holding the Ducks’ offense to just 133 yards and seven points in the second half of a come-from-behind 27-21 victory.
Three weeks later, at Texas A&M, Brown converted those repeated trips into the backfield into negative plays, finishing that 28-20 win with three tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Gus Malzahn was asked after that game whether Brown reminded him of Auburn’s last great game-wrecker on the interior of the defensive line, Nick Fairley, who set a program record with 11½ sacks during the 2010 national-title campaign.
“It did feel that way, now that you say that. He changed the game,” the head coach said. “They were sliding to him every time they passed. I mean, he was getting a push every time.”
That performance against the Aggies earned Brown his first SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honor. He earned his second two weeks later at Florida, when he racked up five tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. And just writing out those totals doesn’t do them justice.
Late in the first quarter in Gainesville, when Florida had the ball facing third-and-seven inside the red zone, Brown picked up a Kyle Trask fumble teammate and roommate Marlon Davidson forced and returned it 42 yards to the Gators’ 35-yard line. He would have almost certainly scored — and probably sewn up SB Nation’s Peisman Trophy — had he not tripped over his own feet at the 39.
“I told him, I said, ‘You fat for not scoring,’” Davidson joked. “But, you know, he made a great play man. That shows the athleticism of Derrick Brown, man. It really does.”
In the fourth quarter of that game, again with Florida driving in the red zone, Brown pushed right guard Brett Heggie all the way back into Trask’s lap, stripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hand and recovered it before it hit the ground, all in one swift motion. He returned that one 11 yards.
After the game, Florida co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy called Brown one of “the top two (defensive tackles) that I’ve seen in 15 years in this league.” The other is former Mississippi State standout, three-time NFL first-team All-Pro and Super Bowl champion Fletcher Cox, who the Philadelphia Eagles drafted with the 12th overall pick in 2012.
And if you want some insight into Brown’s psyche: When asked if that was one of the best individual performances he’s had in his career, the senior said, “I mean, I don’t even really count it. We lost,” 24-13.
The same was true three weeks later at LSU, but again, that was no fault of Brown, who spent much of that afternoon in Baton Rouge shrugging his shoulders at officials who seemed determined to not call a holding penalty against the home team. He finished that game with one sack, and he didn’t even have to touch Joe Burrow to record it — the defensive tackle literally grabbed 6-foot-3, 332-pound guard Damien Lewis and threw him into the LSU quarterback.
And those are just a few select examples of the plays Brown has made for Auburn’s defense this season. There have been many others, like his Superman-esque sack attempt against Kent State. Or the second play of a win at Arkansas, when he chased down running back Rakeem Boyd — then the SEC’s leading rusher — sprinting toward the left boundary and dragged him down for no gain.
It’s why Brown is considered by most to be a surefire first-round NFL Draft pick in April, which would make him the first Auburn player to accomplish that feat since Greg Robinson and Dee Ford in 2014. He might have been last year, too, had he not returned for his senior season to earn his degree and stay close to his son, Kai Asher Brown, who was born in December and lives with his mother in the Atlanta area.
“If they don’t pick him first pick,” Davidson said, “then I don’t think they made the right decision.”