AUBURN — Derrick Brown still remembers it like it was yesterday.
On Nov. 16, 2013, the player who is now a standout senior defensive tackle on one of college football’s best defenses, was a sophomore at Lanier (Ga.) High back then, taking his first recruiting visit to Auburn.
He was standing behind the south end zone at Jordan-Hare Stadium, phone in hand, watching Auburn line up for a fourth-and-18 at its own 27-yard line, trailing rival Georgia by one point with 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. What happened next remains one of the greatest moments in program history.
Nick Marshall dropped back and unleashed a deep ball in the direction of Ricardo Louis streaking over the middle of the field. Head coach Gus Malzahn will still tell you to this day that he threw it to the wrong guy, but it worked — the ball was tipped by two Georgia defenders, Louis ran underneath it and sprinted into the end zone for the game-winning 73-yard touchdown: the Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
“It’s just kind of cool to see everything come full circle,” Brown said Tuesday. “I swore I looked for a picture of that for years, and I never found it, and then I got it yesterday and I was like, pretty neat.”
Brown went on to become a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 1 player in all of Georgia in the Class of 2016. So it should come as no surprise that him committing to and signing with Auburn on National Signing Day ruffled a few feathers.
His parents, Martha and James Brown, both went to Mississippi State. Fans of those Bulldogs thought the defensive tackle should follow the family tradition. His hometown is Sugar Hill, Ga., which is only an hour east of Athens. Fans of those Bulldogs thought he should stay home.
Brown made his own decision, something he said his parents empowered him to do “a long time ago.”
“I got the, ‘Why you didn’t go to Georgia?’ ‘Why you didn’t come to this place, that place?’” he said. “I had a lot of people at my signing day that weren’t happy, but they’re not going to school, so they don’t really matter.”
In that way, Brown’s story isn’t unique. He’s one of 25 scholarship players on Auburn’s roster (and 34 overall) who hails from the state of Georgia — a group that also includes offensive linemen Marquel Harrell (Fairburn) and Mike Horton (Atlanta); defensive linemen Tyrone Truesdell (Augusta) and Big Kat Bryant (Cordele); linebackers Owen Pappoe (Lawrenceville), Chandler Wooten (Acworth) and Zakoby McClain (Valdosta); and defensive backs Christian Tutt (Thompson) and Smoke Monday (Atlanta).
The program claims more than 400 lettermen from that state overall. Five of the team’s 20 commits in the 2020 class, including each of the top three (running back Tank Bigsby, linebacker Wesley Steiner and wide receiver Kobe Hudson) are from right across the border.
“We recruit that like it’s our home state. We’ve done that for a long time,” Malzahn said. “That’s a big key to being successful here at Auburn, is to recruit Georgia successfully.”
It adds another layer of tension to the already-fierce Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, which will be played for the 124th time Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium (2:30 p.m., CBS).
“Winning this game would mean a whole lot to me,” Harrell said. “It would be like an early Christmas gift.”
The Tigers’ constant foray into the Peach State makes sense — Auburn is closer to the Alabama-Georgia border (27 miles) than it is to either Montgomery (55 miles) or Birmingham (110). Factor in traffic, and the drive from the east side of the Atlanta area to Auburn might be quicker than the one to Athens.
The flow of recruits is mostly east (there are only four Alabama products on Georgia’s roster) but one name will be very familiar to fans Saturday — George Pickens, the five-star wide receiver out of Hoover who was committed to the Tigers for more than a year and a half before flipping to the Bulldogs on National Signing Day in February.
“Yeah, he just decided to go there,” Malzahn said Wednesday, clearly not wanting to delve further into the subject. The freshman has caught 39 passes for 389 yards and four touchdowns through nine games this season.
Those decisions to cross state lines can divide families on football Saturdays. Harrell has an uncle who is a “die hard Georgia fan,” to the point where, this time every year for the past five seasons, they’ve traded barbs back and forth.
“‘How do you have a nephew that plays for Auburn, and you root for Georgia? That’s a contradiction,’” the senior left guard joked.
“That’s how it is. I tell him every year — like he comes to UGA and our game and I tell him, ‘You can’t wear Georgia stuff here. You have to wear Auburn stuff, or you ain’t getting a ticket.’ I always just joke around with him, just doing that. But at the end of the day, he says he wants me to succeed, whether we win or lose.”