The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the latest installment.
No. 4: DL JB Brown
Height/weight/year: 6-3, 258, junior
Key 2018 stats: 30 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Comment: Brown probably would have made this list even if two things hadn’t happened this spring that elevated his stock.
One, he was the go-to answer when players and coaches were asked which veteran had taken his game up a notch since the end of last season. Two, Brown took reps at a new spot – defensive tackle – after playing end exclusively in 2018.
The possibility of Brown becoming a significant contributor at two positions – one of which is in desperate need of reinforcements – vaulted him into the top four in our countdown.
Brown became a starter last year when Justin Belknap suffered a broken foot leading into the Week 3 game against Southern Utah. Brown started eight of the remaining 10 games, including the final six. It took him about half a season to hit his stride – which wasn’t surprising since Brown was new to starting and still relatively new to defensive end. (He came to Arizona from Southern California powerhouse Long Beach Poly as a middle linebacker.)
Brown accumulated all of his tackles for losses, all of his sacks and his lone forced fumble over the final seven games. Project those numbers over a 13-game campaign (we’re giving Arizona a bowl bid in this scenario), and they come out to 14 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. That’s a pretty darn good season.
Brown isn’t as long as bookend Jalen Harris. But Brown is stronger and has a motor that never stops revving.
“He’s high energy,” Harris said in spring. “Every day he shows up ready to work.”
Brown’s most natural position is probable strong-side defensive end. So why did the coaching staff give him looks at defensive tackle during spring? And what are the possible benefits of that?
Part of it sprung from necessity. Arizona simply didn’t have enough bodies to go three-deep at the two interior defensive line positions.
But the more Brown played there, the more it made strategic sense. His quick hands and feet became an asset against less athletic guards and centers.
Although the Wildcats have added depth to their front in the form of late signee Kyon Barrs – and hope to add two more big bodies in Kane Bradford and Trevon Mason, who are still working to get enrolled – it seems like a lock that Brown will see time at defensive tackle. The question is how much.
Playing a 258-pounder full time, or close to it, at one of those interior positions might not be the wisest course of action. The UA defense has struggled in recent seasons when it had to use undersized tackles. Kevin Sumlin has targeted bigger athletes in recruiting, including junior-college transfers such as Mason (6-5, 280) and Myles Tapusoa (6-1, 330).
Could Brown become a poor man’s version of Ed Oliver, who disrupted opposing offenses for three seasons at Houston at about 6-1, 280 pounds? Maybe. But the best way to use Brown inside might be in the Michael Bennett mold.
Bennett is a defensive end by trade, but the Seattle Seahawks turned him into a game wrecker by shifting him inside in obvious passing situations. Arizona used Brown and Belknap inside during the spring game. An all-end front of Harris, Brown, Belknap and Kylan Wilborn has the potential to wreak havoc in long-yardage scenarios.
Whether he plays tackle a lot or a little, Brown’s versatility boosts his value. He displayed his playmaking chops last season. The coaching staff seems determined to put him in position to make even more this year.
MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019