They ran the drill multiple times each week during A.J. Brown’s senior season at Starkville High School.
“We would take four quarterbacks and have them throw 10 passes to each of our receivers running different routes down the field, then 10 more passes coming back the other way,” recalled veteran coach Ricky Woods. “So each receiver had 20 chances to catch a pass. If he dropped one, he had to do pushups.
“In 18 weeks — preseason through the state championship week — A.J. never dropped a pass in that drill. And he caught most of them with one hand. Never did a pushup. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Brown, a a 6-foot-1, 223-pound rookie with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, continues to impress. Entering Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Baltimore, Brown has 52 receptions for 1,051 yards and 8 touchdowns. His 20.2-yard average per catch ranks 9th in the AFC.
In the final four regular-season games, with the Titans fighting to secure a playoff spot, Brown caught 18 passes for 425 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also ran for a 49-yard score on a reverse.
This from a guy who wasn’t sure about this whole football thing in the 8th grade.
“He hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, and he didn’t much like the idea of running a pass route across the middle and getting laid out,” chuckled Willie Gillespie, Brown’s position coach in middle school and high school and also a mentor and close family friend.
“So we made him a placekicker. Can you believe that? He had a big leg, could really kick it. But he tried so hard to bang the thing into the end zone on kickoffs, he missed the ball half the time. A couple of times, he barely kicked it and we wound up recovering it. I was like, “Nice onside kick, A.J.’”
They grew up 75 miles apart — Brown in Starkville, D.K. Metcalf in Oxford.
Each had the body of a grown man before his 18th birthday.
They signed with Ole Miss in 2016 and became one of college football’s most talented receiving duos. Draft “experts” predicted they would be first-round picks in 2019.
Instead, three receivers were selected before Brown went to the Titans in the second round as the 51st player picked. Two more receivers were taken before the Seattle Seahawks drafted Metcalf with the 64th pick.
They quietly stewed about dropping out of the first round, and they have made their points on the field: So far, Brown and Metcalf have combined for more yards and touchdowns than the combined totals of the five receivers taken before them.
In Seattle’s wild-card victory at Philadelphia last Sunday, Metcalf captured the attention of the sports world with 160 receiving yards — more than any rookie in NFL playoff history.
LeBron James dubbed Metcalf “young king” via Instagram.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said: “He did some stuff that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing.”
His quarterback, Russell Wilson, said: “All the extra work, all the early mornings — we were throwing at 5:20 in the morning in the summer time. That’s what greatness looks like, and he’s done it.”
Metcalf’s performance even had Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch offering up quotes afterward: “He (is) a big a— dude who can move like that.”
Shame on the scouts who categorized the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Metcalf as an NFL Combine show pony. The Seahawks saw the obvious benefit of a tall receiver who ran a 4.33 40-yard dash. He’s been a game-changer.
Leading the Eagles 17-9 with 1:47 left in the game last Sunday, the visiting Seahawks faced third-and-10 from their 11-yard line. Instead of playing it safe, Carroll trusted his rookie wideout to grab a pass and a victory. Metcalf went up and snagged Wilson’s perfectly lofted throw for a 36-yard gain. First down. Ballgame — and on to Green Bay for a Sunday night matchup.
“D.K. is in a good place in Seattle,” said Archie Manning. “He’s playing for a really good coach in Pete Carroll, and he’s playing with a great quarterback. Good franchise. Good fans.”
In the Titans’ road upset of the Patriots, Brown caught only one pass for four yards. Tennessee quarterbacks passed just 16 times, choosing to pound the Patriots’ defense on the ground. Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and a score in a 20-13 win.
“That’s the thing about A.J.,” Woods said. “He was the same guy after a game whether he caught 15 passes or two passes. Didn’t matter to him as long as we won. You don’t find a lot of guys like that.”
It was pretty cool last Monday to click on Under Armour’s sports apparel website and see a picture of Metcalf working out in the company’s gear. On TV the same day, NFL Network ran a promotional ad for its awards show the night before the Super Bowl. It included a clip of Brown catching a touchdown pass.
Already, they are faces of today’s NFL.
On the field before the Titans-Patriots game, longtime NFL writer Peter King noticed an unusual tribute. He wrote about it in his weekly Football Morning in America column: “As is his pre-game custom, (Tom) Brady ran the length of the field to the south goal … When Brady turned to run back, he spotted three young Titans—wideout A.J. Brown, tight end Jonnu Smith and running back Khari Blasingame—clapping respectfully and pointing toward him. Brady pointed at them, nodding as if to say, That’s truly appreciated. And when he did, they, in turn, responded by pumping fists and jumping around.”
When told of Brown’s encounter with Brady, Gillespie said: “That’s good to hear because A.J. was always a Patriots fan growing up. When he was at Ole Miss and came back for a Starkville High game, I had a picture taken with him. A.J. had on a Patriots skull cap and jacket.
“In fact, I think it really disappointed A.J. when the Patriots had a chance to pick him in the first round and chose another wide receiver, instead.”
That receiver was N’Keal Harry of Arizona State. His rookie numbers: 12 catches, 105 yards, 2 touchdowns.
The youngster who wasn’t sure about football in the 8th grade was more uncertain the next year.
“A.J. didn’t even play football his 9th grade year,” Gillespie said. “He concentrated on basketball and baseball, and he was really good at both.”
But he grew to 6-foot-1 before his sophomore year. Gillespie talked to him about playing, and Brown showed up for fall practice.
“When he walked out to the field, I told the other coaches, ‘I don’t know if he can catch a cold. But he sure looks good in that uniform,’ ” Gillespie said.
Brown was fortunate to have Gillespie as his position coach. Also a graduate of Starkville High, Gillespie enjoyed brief stints as a wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was able to share with Brown the nuances of the position.
“He really went to work at his that sophomore year,” Gillespie recalled. “He had great ball skills. He had a natural ability to track a ball, and I think that’s why he was able to play centerfield so well in baseball.
“But he worked on route running. I saw the potential, and we had some talks about playing at the next level and even on Sundays in the NFL.
“The one thing he had to learn was to impose his will on that defensive back trying to cover him.”
Gillespie said “I think the light came on against Tupelo” his sophomore year. “They had a defensive back about 5-foot-9. I said, “A.J., are you so soft that you’re going to get that guy beat you? Go dominate him. And you don’t have to be open. We’re going to throw you the ball, and you go up over him and take it.’
“He did it that night, and I think it gave him a lot of confidence.”
Confidence, yes. A wild streak of cockiness? Far from it.
“I asked A.J. if he wanted to wear No. 1 his senior year — he’d worn 15 before that,” Woods said. “He said, ‘I don’t know, Coach. I don’t want people thinking I’m the best player on the team.’
“I said, ‘A.J., everybody already knows you’re the best player on the team.’ He talked it over with his dad and he finally came to me and said he’d like to wear it. But that’s just the kind of person A.J. is. His father raised him right.”
The two schools that recruited Brown the hardest were Ole Miss and Alabama.
“Nick Saban really wanted A.J.,” Gillespie said, referring to the Crimson Tide coach. “But when he went on his official visit to Ole Miss, his host player was another receiver, Laquon Treadwell. He told A.J., ‘Look, I’m gonna be honest with you. I don’t get involved in the partying on the The Square. I take care of my business, and that’s what I’m here for. I go to school and I work on football.’
“A.J. was never a party kind of guy, and I think hearing that from someone like Treadwell really stuck with him.”
Gillespie was in Oxford for Brown’s draft nigh get-together. Also in attendance was then Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. The two had become friends during recruiting. Hurts often drove from Tuscaloosa to Starkville to work out with Brown at Starkville High.
“When that first night passed and he didn’t go in the first round, A.J. was down,” Gillespie said. “I told him, ‘It’s going to work out like it’s supposed to. There is someone a lot bigger than all of us who already has this thing orchestrated and written out.’
“I think Tennessee was the perfect place for him. It’s not far from Oxford. And they seem to play apower, physical type of football. That fits A.J. with his wide body and his ability to get in and out of routes.”
The two will forever be linked in Mississippi and at Ole Miss. When both had an open weekend in November, they showed up on the sidelines together for the Rebels’ home game against No. 1-ranked LSU.
“I think it’s terrific for the youth of Mississippi to have D.K. and A.J. out there as role models,” Gillespie said. “They’ve done things the right way. They were what student-athletes should be. And they’ll continue to do things right because that’s who they are. We’re lucky to be able to observe it.”