Brown, Davidson just the latest additions to Rodney Garner’s impressive coaching resume
AUBURN — Rodney Garner remembers almost crashing his car.
The defensive line coach felt like he had secured Derrick Brown, a stud five-star defensive tackle recruit out of Sugar Hill, Georgia, in 2016. It wasn’t official yet, but he was a silent commitment; he was going to choose Auburn on National Signing Day.
But nothing is ever done until a player signs. And as often happens in the SEC, another school begin to sway Brown. “He had a change of heart,” Garner said. Brown’s parents, James and Martha, called Garner upset and angry with their son’s decision. They told him that he had to be the one to tell Garner.
“I'm on my way to a function, and I get a phone call. And it's Derrick on the phone. He says he wants to break the news to me that he's not coming to Auburn, and I almost wrecked,” Garner said on a Zoom conference with reporters late last month. “So we had to pull over and get that thing rectified and get him back to thinking right.”
“Rodney left one thing out, now,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele joked. “He said when he called, he had to pull over and get things rectified. That rectified meant he had to call 911. They had to resuscitate him. Not literally, but figuratively. He had a mild heart attack.”
Of course, everyone knows how the story goes from there. Brown did sign with Auburn, choosing the Tigers over Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, among many others. He amassed 170 tackles, 33 ½ tackles for loss, 13 sacks and five forced fumbles over a standout four-year career on the Plains. He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Lott IMPACT Trophy winner and unanimous All-American as a senior.
The Carolina Panthers made Brown the No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on April 23. On Friday, the two sides agreed to a fully guaranteed four-year contract worth $23.6 million.
“He tells me all the time that he's glad that his parents sat him down and made him reevaluate that,” Garner said. “He felt like that this was the best decision for him. And I'm glad that he feels that way. That's what you want all of them to have when they leave here; you want them to make the best decision for them.”
Playing for Garner has proven to be a great decision for a lot of defensive linemen. Brown and Auburn teammate Marlon Davidson (who the Atlanta Falcons drafted in the second round last month) are just the latest names to be added to the veteran position coach’s impressive resume.
Garner, a Leeds native and former All-SEC player for the Tigers in the mid-to-late 1980s, has been a defensive line coach since 1998, spending 15 years at Georgia and the previous seven at Auburn. He has coached 30 future NFL players during that time, including 21 draft picks. Brown was his seventh first-rounder.
“The one thing about Coach G — that my dad instilled in me a long time ago — is to never accept being mediocre. You come in here and if you can’t do something Coach G is going to make you do it,” Brown said last season.
“He tells us every single day to, ‘Become a pro long before you become a pro.’ He just means that in terms of taking care of your body and being able to do the basic necessities that are required at the position we play. It’s crazy, because when you get here on Day 1 you think, ‘Oh my God, this guy is crazy.’ Now you look back on it and say, ‘Now I’m ready’. These last four years, Coach G has helped me become a lot more ready for those situations.”
Producing that amount of next-level talent obviously starts with recruiting. Garner has proven his mastery of that time and time again. Auburn has signed nine five-star prospects since 2013, when Garner returned to his alma mater to join first-year head coach Gus Malzahn’s staff. Four of those have been defensive linemen — Brown, Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Byron Cowart (who transferred to Maryland after two seasons). All of them are on NFL rosters.
In all, Garner has helped the Tigers sign 38 defensive linemen over eight recruiting classes, or an average of nearly five per season. Twenty-seven of them were rated as four-star prospects or better. Four switched over to the offensive line while at Auburn and nine did not finish their college careers with the Tigers, but Garner has never once struggled to replenish talent up front.
Replacing Brown and Davidson will be a challenge, but so was replacing Dee Ford, Adams, Lawson, Jeff Holland and Dontavius Russell before them, and Auburn's defensive line has consistently kept on humming. Next season, it will be with the likes of returning players Big Kat Bryant, T.D. Moultry, Derick Hall, Colby Wooden, Tyrone Truesdell, Coynis Miller Jr., Daquan Newkirk and Jaren Handy — seven out of the eight are former four-star prospects — as well as of the best incoming classes in the country.
On Nov. 1 of last year, Auburn had only one defensive lineman committed to its 2020 class — three-star Mobile defensive end Daniel Foster-Allen. It wound up signing six overall — four-stars Jay Hardy and Zykeivous Walker, three-star edge rusher Romello Height and JUCO products Dre Butler and Marquis Burks all committed and signed in a span of less than three months.
Garner ranked No. 4 nationally in 247Sports’ recruiter rankings for the 2020 class. He has ranked as high as No. 2 (in 2016, when helped the Tigers land Brown, Davidson, Nick Coe and Antwuan Jackson Jr.) and never lower than No. 52 during his time on the Plains. There are 640 assistant coaches in the Power 5 conferences.
“As long as you’ve got Coach G, you’ve got a defensive line,” Davidson said. “I can promise you that.”
Recruiting is only part of the equation, though. Players will tell you there are two different versions of Garner — the one who you meet during the recruiting process and the one you meet on the first day of practice at Auburn. In both roles, Garner is a father figure who cares deeply about his players. But while the former is focused on showing you the best side of him, the latter is focused on making you great on the football field.
“As soon as you step foot on the grass, a switch flips,” Brown said.
“My first practice here at Auburn, to see how he coached was when I got here — I never came to practice or nothing. I never knew what it took to play under Rodney Garner,” Davidson said. “And it's hard.”
Not every player is able to handle it. But for those who can, it is often worth it. At Georgia, Garner coached five players who went on to become first-round NFL Draft picks — Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, David Pollack, Charles Grant and Jonathan Sullivan — and a host more who went on to have long NFL careers, including, fourth-rounders Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers and sixth-rounder Kedric Golston.
Since returning to Auburn, Garner has helped 13 players earn at least a shot to play at the next level — first-round picks Brown and Ford; later-round picks Davidson, Adams, Lawson, Cowart, Russell, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright; and undrafted free agents Holland, DaVonte Lambert, Devaroe Lawrence and Nick Coe.
That list of former Tigers includes six All-SEC selections and three All-Americans. At the next level, Garner's pupils have combined for 17 Pro Bowl berths, nine All-Pro selections and nine Super Bowl appearances.
Garner believes Brown will soon be on that list. And at this point, there’s no reason to doubt Auburn’s longtime defensive line coach.
“Derrick, to me, is a combination of Richard (Seymour) and Marcus (Stroud),” Garner said, comparing Brown to two players who combined to play 22 seasons in the NFL, make 10 Pro Bowls and win three Super Bowls (Seymour with the Patriots in 2002, 2004 and 2005).
“He has the athleticism of Seymour, but he has the stature and the power of Stroud. So when you put those two together, I think it equates to a pretty special player. Obviously, he's an unbelievable young man. With those characteristics, I think the Panthers organization, they've got a young man who can be the face of that organization. I think he's going to be a really good player for a really long time in that league.”