Tampa, Fla. – Ask Derrick Brown why the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and impending first-round NFL draft pick chose to play in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl against the Gophers, and he couldn’t be more blunt.
“I want to finish the season off with my teammates because I’m captain.”
When he made his decision: “Immediately.”
What it means that all 25 Auburn seniors decided to play, with just one junior opting out for the NFL draft: “It just shows how we do around here. I mean, guys don’t sit out the bowl game. We’re playing.”
As Brown’s tone suggested, the defensive tackle and the rest of his Auburn teammates are treating this week in Tampa as a business trip, not a vacation. Brown all but demanded his Tigers end his career with a win and that the seniors leave their names in the record books.
The Gophers can relate. They don’t have two dozen seniors like Auburn, but only one of them will miss the game, linebacker Kamal Martin, who is injured. The No. 12 Tigers (9-3) are a one-touchdown favorite against the No. 18 Gophers (10-2), but Brown is intending to do much more than just outlast his opponent.
“I feel like a lot of teams go to bowl games, and they think playing opponents from different conferences, they take it lightly,” Brown said. “A few years ago, we played UCF, and we didn’t go out there with the right mind-set. That lackadaisical stuff doesn’t exist anymore.”
That 34-27 loss to UCF in the 2018 Peach Bowl still bugs Brown. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called that game a “learning experience.”
“That was a year that, I think, we knocked off two No. 1s back to back, and we went to the SEC championship game, a little banged up. And of course, we were thinking big things, and we get beat there. And then the UCF team that’s very, very talented, and we didn’t play our best game,” Malzahn said. “That hurt a lot of the guys. But it helped us.”
Brown came back motivated. He could have left after his junior year for the NFL but didn’t. Now he’s projected as a top-10 or top-five pick in the NFL draft. He’s not worried about any injury risk ahead of a multimillion-dollar contract signing, saying if that were the case, he wouldn’t have played the entire season.
As one of the team leaders, Brown surely influenced the rest of his class to follow along and suit up for this last game. Malzahn said Brown always leads the pack, on and off the field.
“He’s got a unique talent,” Malzahn said, comparing Brown to former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. “… He’s just a big guy that can run. He has really good instincts. He’s got experience, too, this is his fourth year coming back. He’s played some really big games. … He’s one of the more dominant players, I think, to come through our league in a while.”
Malzahn called Brown a “wonderful person” who cares about people, someone who “what you see is what you get.”
In addition to his performance-based honors, Brown also has earned recognitions like the Senior CLASS Award, given to the best senior student-athlete in the FBS. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. met him at the Bronko Nagurski Awards Banquet this month, and Fleck called Brown “a breath of fresh air.”
“You talk about one of the most sincere, humble men you’ve ever met in your life,” Fleck said. “… He’s full of life.”
Brown, though, is never going to wax poetic about himself. To him, playing in the bowl game was a black-and-white issue.
He’s going to play Auburn football until he no longer can.
“Everybody is focused. All the older guys are focused on trying to get this 10th win,” Brown said. “That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”