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AJ Brown Makes It Look Easy

By Jim Johnson
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No SEC player this century has had as many 150+ yard games in a single season.

"You watch A.J. run a post route and as soon as the ball hits his hands, he makes something special happen."
~Ole Miss C Sean Rawlings

In Ole Miss’ 2017 opener, against South Alabama, there was a play early in the fourth quarter in which A.J. Brown caught a ten yard out, broke a would-be tackle from an eventual all-conference pick, and proceeded to make the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year whiff, en route to a 40 yard gain. He went on to finish with 233 yards and two scores.

Six or so weeks later, against Vanderbilt, he created the inch he needed with a double move inside, climbed the ladder, and reeled in a highlight catch for 15 of his 174 yards. He took a couple of trips to the endzone that day, too.

Against Kentucky, in early November, he was interfered with on a comeback by 2016 All-SEC safety Mike Edwards, bodied him up anyways, snatched a 50/50 ball, and threw him aside like he was a child.

To wrap up the season, on the second play from scrimmage in the Egg Bowl, he ran away from Mississippi State’s JT Gray, who only allowed a 72.1 passer rating on throws into his coverage from the slot, on a post that went for 59 yards. He ended up with 167 yards and a touchdown that day.

Four plays that at once help to exemplify what makes A.J. Brown the best receiver in the country and yet, somehow, don’t fully do him justice. Four plays that highlight the body of work that make him a near surefire first round pick next year. Four mostly different plays tied together by one pervasive thread -- how easy he makes it all look.

Although, it is what he does Sunday through Friday, the rest of the year, unseen by the viewing public, that make fall Saturday’s appear to be such a walk in the park.

Asked what makes his favorite target so special, quarterback Jordan Ta’Amu said, “He's always coming in at night time when no one’s there. He's always hitting me up to go throw. He's always working on something new everyday, and he's a leader on and off the field. A.J. Brown is all-around talented and all-around great and smart guy. He works hard on and off the field.”

This was a sentiment shared by more than one Rebel.

“The work he puts in, the whole receiving corps, they do a great job of doing more, even when it’s not expected. Even when they do more, they take it to the next level --  late at night, holidays, weekends, off-days, doing the most. I would say that group probably works the most and the hardest out of everybody on the team, and that's something I aspire for my group to step up and match that level intensity,” added defensive lineman Josiah Coatney.

“He does a great job leading his guys, him, DK Metcalf, and Damarkus Lodge,” Coatney added about Brown’s leadership. “They do a great job of taking the young guys and making it a generational thing, not just a couple seasons of average receivers, they want to make it more of a brand that Ole Miss is known for great receivers going to the nfl and making great plays. You know, playing on the highest stage of college football, and winning awards and doing things like that. He just wants to make the receiver brand a national brand and that's something they are all doing well as leaders over there, especially A.J.”

His head coach, Matt Luke, has been as impressed as anyone with Brown.

“A.J. is very, very driven. He's a tremendous player. He's a tremendous competitor. And it's been fun to really watch him push the other receivers and other receivers push and continue to develop,” Luke expanded. “I'm looking for him to get one year better in this offense. I think continuity is huge. I think that's a big advantage we have coming back, is having the same coordinators on offense and defense, being able to keep that continuity and getting one year better. Obviously a phenomenal player. There will be people trying to take him away. The good news is you have DK and Lodge there as well. I'm really excited about A.J. and the leadership qualities he brings to the table.”

As Luke and Coatney mentioned, Brown is just one of a devastating trio, alongside DK Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge.

Metcalf, at 6’4, 225 lbs., and Lodge, 6’2, 200 lbs., grant Ole Miss the luxury of playing Brown primarily out of the slot, where, at 6’1, 225 lbs, himself, he is an absolute matchup nightmare. Be it by design or simply good fortune, there’s nowhere for defensive backs to hide against the Rebels.

“I think you always want to try to find a way to get your best players on the field together,” Luke told the press at SEC Media Days, in Atlanta. “I think that was the best combination of those three guys. I think they are one of the most talented units in the country. They are all very different, they all bring something different to the table. You can't cover all of them and I think that's something we were able to do well offensively last year is when we were able to run the ball effectively and take advantage of those one on one mismatches. AJ is a special player, he's very driven but it's fun to watch those guys push together. They are very, very competitive, but the thing I'm probably most proud of is when one catches a touchdown, the other two are right behind him because they are very, very unselfish. They all want the ball, and for them to be unselfish, it shows what makes them really special.”

Indeed, just as Luke stated, not only immensely talented, individually, they operate as a symbiotic unit. This isn’t a case of three gifted, but one dimensional athletes. Led by Brown, the group each fills a unique role which offers myriad avenues to attack and exploit whatever opposing defenses are susceptible to, from one week to the next.

That being said, as senior center Sean Rawlings can attest, at the end of the day, these guys are all just really scary good.

“I’m sure glad they’re on our team,” Rawlings cracked. “(They are) extremely talented guys, and you almost have to take a step back and just watch in awe. You watch A.J. run a post route and as soon as the ball hits his hands, he makes something special happen. That’s so much fun to be a part of. And then you have D.K. Metcalf reaching up in the back of the end zone, in the final seconds against Kentucky and us winning that game on the road. It’s just special to be a part of and being able to play with those guys and be a part of it with them. You just can’t say enough about them.”

Certainly, each one makes the other two better and all three are improved for having played alongside one another, but the buck stops with Brown.

No SEC player this century has had as many 150+ yard games in a single season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brown had a 143.9 passer rating on his targets (5th highest among returning FBS receivers), which is over 50 points above the national average. He also graded out above the mean on six different types of routes, at his absolute best on slants, crossing routes, and screens. Obviously he did most of his damage in the short to intermediate range, but he made them all count, averaging more yards per route run than any returning SEC pass catcher.

Specifically from the slot, Brown’s 13.17 yards per target were the second most among returning players, and his ten touchdowns topped all of college football, a year ago.

Brown is physical specimen that bullies smaller slot corners on a regular basis. He’s got the hops and body control to climb the ladder with anyone. And, as plainly displayed by his 21 missed tackles forced and 643 yards after the catch, he is a serial embarrasser with the ball in his hands.

They say hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Well, A.J. Brown is a special talent that does what it takes to make game days look like nothing -- and, boy do they ever.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP