Greg Little has A.J. Brown pegged.
“There’s never a negative day for him,” said the junior Ole Miss left tackle, who signed alongside Brown in the heralded 2016 class. “He has that over everybody else.”
A sunny-ish disposition has its advantages. Adversity is easier to deal with. Pressure isn’t paralyzing. The future is left for another day, as it is with Brown. Not that he’s necessarily channeling his inner Dude, out searching for the carpet to bring the room together. His work ethic is unmatched. His practice habits mirror his in-game productivity.
“He’s out here when nobody else is,” senior center Sean Rawlings said.
For Brown, it’s better this way. He’s keenly aware of who he is. The beating heart of Rebel football. The focal point of the offense. The All-American. The leader of arguably the best wide receiver corps in the country. The potential Top 10 NFL Draft pick. The all-world player who stayed when he’d have been forgiven for leaving.
He embraces it all. Actually, he feeds off of it. Wide receivers, by their nature, are confident. Some defiantly so, and Brown is no different in that regard. But there’s more to him, and his Ole Miss career, than his numbers, even if those numbers are second to none in school history.
“You’ve got to have that swagger about it,” Brown said. “I feel like we’re the best receivers corps in the country. People can take that any way they want to take it. I really feel like we’re the best in the country. Every day in practice, we’ve got to go out and prove it. Every game, we know we’re going to get people’s best. We’ve set that bar high, so we’ve got to keep on chasing it.”
Brown smiles a lot, to be sure, but one day in particular, when brought up, always brings about a smirk unique to any other.
He announced his commitment to Ole Miss on National Signing Day well over two years ago. And he did so in a jam-packed room at Starkville (Miss.) High School. Starkville, of course, is the home of the Rebels’ in-state rival, Mississippi State.
His commitment was met with equal parts excitement and anger from competing sides. Ole Miss fans celebrated as if their favorite team had won a primetime college football game in the fall. His ceremony was streamed live at the Ole Miss Quarterback Club. The some 400 members in attendance collectively leapt to their feet when he put on a red cap with white Ole Miss script. The video went viral on Egg Bowl Twitter.“Me and (Ole Miss wide receiver) D.K. (Metcalf), we were sitting here thinking back to working all through the night when we first arrived,” he said after a laugh, purposefully steering away from his commitment day. “They had to kick us out. We all have dreams of going to the NFL and stuff like that. We’re sitting here in year three now. It’s right there. We’re right here. It’s crazy to sit back and think about how far we’ve come. It’s a blessing, honestly.”
He’d done the unthinkable. What actually happened, the reality, is still somewhat hard to believe to this day.
Setting the stage: In front of family and friends, most all hardcore Bulldogs, a homegrown talent born and raised in Mississippi State’s back yard would commit to Ole Miss. Uh huh. Sure. Most had to see it to believe it.
But he did. Some, not all, Mississippi State fans reacted accordingly, and he’s considered a villain, in a way, two Egg Bowls later. He’s probably more wrestling heel than anything else, most Bulldog fans winking along with him. However, the back-and-forth with fans in Starkville when Ole Miss pulled the 31-28 upset last season would indicate the disdain runs deeper. Brown had 167 receiving yards and a 77-yard touchdown in the win. He regularly jarred with those Bulldog fans seated within ear shot of the Ole Miss sideline after every meaningful play he made.
“This is my city!” he said repeatedly, in an exchange caught by ESPN cameras in front of a national TV audience on Thanksgiving. His Wikipedia page was revised to account for his new title as Mayor of Starkville.
The boldness of the move to Oxford, no matter the allegiance, has to be at least somewhat respected. And all he’s done is perform in an Ole Miss uniform. He’s a former four-star prospect and Under Armour All-American who’s lived up to the hype in every way.
“I wanted to be the best receiver to ever play here,” he said. “That was the goal when I signed. It means a lot putting this jersey on, putting this No. 1 on. Laquon Treadwell had a huge legacy here. He set the bar really high for me. My job was to try to make people forget about Laquon Treadwell. But that’s hard because of what he did here.
“But it means a lot to me. I set out to be an all-time great. Whoever wears this No. 1, they’ve got to chase this. If they put on this 1, they better go and try to chase all our accolades, me and Laquon.”
There was a worry in December the No. 1 would be vacated.
Ole Miss was finally handed its penalties by the NCAA after a five-year investigative process, among them an additional postseason ban. Unless the ban is overturned on appeal, Brown will go his entire career without having played in a bowl game. Ole Miss had its appeal hearing in mid-July. It’s expected to hear back from the ruling Committee on Infractions sometime in the next month or so, maybe sooner.
Double-digit players transferred out. A handful were buried on the depth chart and saw an opportunity to start anew without penalty and, in theory, compete for what had been, at Ole Miss, an elusive starting job. A few more left as a direct result of the NCAA mess. It had become too much.
Brown went to Twitter. He didn’t issue a delicately-crafted, P.R.-driven statement. What arrived in the streams of his 19,000 followers was a video from The Wolf of Wall Street – of star Leonardo DiCaprio, in character as Jordan Belfort, making a passionate declaration to his employees at Stratton Oakmont. The FBI had wiretapped the company’s phones due to its ongoing investigation into securities fraud. Rumors were swirling Belfort would be stepping down as CEO.
“You know what?” Belfort said, his emotional resistance building as he went on. “I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving. I’M NOT (expletive) LEAVING! This is my home! They’re gonna need a (expletive) wrecking ball to take me out of here! They’re gonna need to send in the National Guard, a (expletive) SWAT team, ‘cause I ain’t going nowhere!”
Then the crowd erupts.
There was a similar reaction to Brown’s decision. The tweet was liked over 5,700 times and retweeted over 2,900 times. National stories were written. Talk radio chimed in, too. He could have transferred anywhere. Name a school. The temptation was sweetened when the NCAA allowed every player that left immediate eligibility, wiping away the requisite one-year sit-out season.
Unofficial representatives of competing schools checked in on his availability through intermediaries. Brown was unmoved. And just like that, his place as an all-time Ole Miss great, the place he’s always coveted, was cemented, whether he played another down or not.
So much for touchdowns.
“Loyalty. Loyalty, leadership,” Brown said. “That’s just the way I was raised. If I said I was coming here, my dad already said when I chose here, ‘There’s no transferring. You need to go out there and make it work.’ That’s what I did, honestly. When I made that statement, I meant it. I’d never turn my back on this place. This is home to me, even though I grew up down the road. This is home, man. These are my brothers. Everything we’ve been through, I wouldn’t dare turn my back on my brothers and put on another jersey. No disrespect to anybody who did, but that’s just me. I wouldn’t do that.”
“I never really thought about leaving. Neither of us did,” Little said. “We knew we could maximize our opportunity here. We didn’t need to go somewhere else. We just want to play football. It doesn’t have to be an ideal situation; we just want to play football.”
Brown doesn’t have anything left to prove.
He caught 75 passes and set single-season records for yards (1,252) and touchdowns (11) last season. He was a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist (he’s on the award’s 2018 preseason watch list, too) and the Conerly Trophy winner, an honor bestowed on the best college football player in Mississippi each year. He was named All-SEC and an All-American.
How does such a player get better? Defenses will surely focus their attention on not allowing Brown to beat them. The thing is, while Ole Miss has and will game plan to get the ball to its best players, and Brown sits atop the pecking order, offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s system isn’t dependent on one man. The pieces are, to some degree, interchangeable.
Though no piece is better than Brown.
“The nature of the offense is balance,” Longo said. “In this offense, balance isn’t 40 carries and 40 throws. Balance in this offense is getting as close to an equal distribution of the football as you can so the defense has to defend everybody. If we never threw to the right wideout, it would allow the defense to focus in on a smaller part of the field and 10 guys instead of 11. Where we were last year, both wideouts were threats. The tight end was a threat. The running game was a threat. When you look at the running statistics, we ran the ball for more yards a game and per play against our SEC opponents than we did in our out-of-conference games. It’s not because the out-of-conference teams were better run defenses. They committed more time to trying to stop the run because they couldn’t match us physically and they gave up more throw matchups, so we took them. It wasn’t because we couldn’t run against them. If on the same play you have the same odds to gain four yards on a power (run) and 15 on a dig (route), we’re going to throw the dig.”
Brown looks at it another way.
“DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf and running the football,” is the answer, he said. “You’ve got to play everybody honest. When you do that, you’re leaving somebody one-on-one, and our guys are more than capable of winning one-on-ones. They’re giving somebody an opportunity. Fair game.”
Fall camp is underway for Ole Miss, which will open its season against Texas Tech in Houston Sept. 1. When the time comes and if the Red Raiders bracket or roll coverage to him, so be it. Ole Miss has an answer. The Rebels are the only team in the country with three receivers returning who each caught seven or more touchdown passes last season. Ole Miss finished with a 6-6 overall record. Lodge caught 41 balls for 698 yards and seven touchdowns, while Metcalf added 39, 646 and seven.
“It does get frustrating sometimes,” Brown said. “The Alabama game, they did that. But I know if I do my job and I get everybody’s attention, I know I’m leaving one of those guys one-on-one. They’re going to get the ball and handle it and do what they’re supposed to do.”
And if Brown does what he’s supposed to do as a junior, in the spring, he’ll be walking across the NFL Draft stage, his dream fulfilled. He’s cognizant of the praise being put on his name, of the expectations his coaches and teammates and fans and detractors have for him. But he’s in control. He always has been. He’s writing his story, and it isn’t over. The final chapter awaits.
But his legacy? His legacy is already decided, whether he plays another down or not.
“A.J. is very, very driven,” Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke said. “He’s a tremendous player. He’s a tremendous competitor. It’s been fun to really watch him push the other receivers and the other receivers continue to develop.”
“He’s just special,” Rawlings said. “He’s a special player. I think that’s how you can identify him.”
On he goes. Back to the jugs machine. Back to the fields of the Manning Center in the dark of night, running routes with Metcalf and Lodge. The smile never fades, Brown always sending positive vibes.
Whoever comes next, they’ll be chasing him. It could be Braylon Sanders or Elijah Moore or Miles Battle. Ole Miss has commitments from four wide receivers so far in its 2019 recruiting haul, including a pair of four-star in-state prospects in Dannis Jackson and Jonathan Mingo. Maybe them.
If Treadwell set the bar, Brown raised it three notches. This is his home. And there isn’t a SWAT team or wrecking ball in sight.
“It’s a blessing just to see (the NFL projections), but I try not to focus on it. If I focus on that, I’m not going to be putting all my effort to on the field for my brothers,” Brown said. “It’s not about me. I don’t go out there and play by myself. I can’t focus on none of that. I’ve got to go out and play for my brothers every day, for my team. If you play for the person beside you, individual goals will happen themselves. It’ll happen. I try not to worry about individual goals, I just try to go out and play for the guys next to me.”