Coming out of high school in Florida, Jatavis Brown heard the same criticism over and over.
He was too small, they said. He couldn’t play at the next level, they said.
And as Brown concludes his college career Tuesday against Utah State at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, he’s hearing those same whispers from NFL scouts.
But that suits the 5-foot-11, 222-pound weakside linebacker just fine. Brown said those doubters have fueled him from a 185-pound, two-star recruit to MAC defensive player of the year to a potential NFL draftee.
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“I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” Brown said. “I feel like I can play at any level of college football. I really took that personally.”
FBS recruiters bypassed Brown four years ago. Ready to commit to an FCS school, Akron called with a scholarship offer two weeks before signing day as incoming coach Terry Bowden scrambled to fill his first recruiting class.
Brown didn’t have time to visit the campus. So after looking into the school and Bowden’s success online, he returned the gesture of faith and signed without setting foot in Akron.
“I’m the kind of guy I like taking chances,” Brown said. “I can adapt to things. It wasn’t a big thing for me. I was going to go somewhere new eventually. It was here or somewhere else.”
The gamble paid off for both sides.
Brown first cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman, and he’s anchored the Zips defense the past three years, earning first-team All-MAC honors three years in a row. The senior captain leads Akron with 108 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss this fall. And he set the school record for sacks at 10.5, surpassing a record shared by four-time All-Pro Jason Taylor and Ken Williams.
With his shorter frame and 4.52-second 40-yard time, Bowden said Brown reminds him of Takeo Spikes, a first-round pick under Bowden at Auburn who played 15 years in the NFL and earned a pair of All-Pro honors.
“He brings exceptional athleticism,” Bowden said. “He can blitz. He can play the run. He can drop into pass (coverage), and he plays with great intensity every snap. He brings that just great energy to the defense.”
Despite the praise and all of his production, NFL scouts still hold the same reservations college recruiters did four years ago.
He’s a late-round pick, they say. He’d be better off at safety, or maybe on special teams, they say.
Brown has heard it all before.
“Even in the league, I’ll play with a chip on my shoulder because right now they feel like I’m an undersized linebacker,” he said. “I feel like I can play linebacker. And I’m going to play linebacker.”
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Utah State vs. Akron
▪ When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday
▪ Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf), Boise
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ Records: Utah State (6-6, 5-3 Mountain West); Akron (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American)
▪ Coaches: Utah State, Matt Wells (25-15, third year); Akron, Terry Bowden (18-30, fourth year; 158-92-2, 22nd year overall)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Vegas line: Utah State by 6 1/2
▪ Tickets: $20-$90, at ticketmaster.com; $24 for FitOne Family Field Day (pre-game NFL combine-type event at 10:30 a.m., lunch and game ticket)
▪ Monday fan event: Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Mash Bash at The Village in Meridian will be open to fans from 5 to 8 p.m.
▪ Tuesday kickoff weather: High in the upper 30s, with slight chance of rain/snow mixture.