When four-star offensive lineman and longtime University of Miami commitment Reilly Gibbons decided to switch his pledge to Stanford only a couple days before National Signing Day in 2014, it sent the Hurricanes coaching staff scrambling to find a much-needed replacement.
They found one three weeks later — quite literally — Straight Outta Compton.
“I remember getting this phone call from a weird 305 number about a day after Joe Brown got his first offer from UTEP,” Paramount High (California) football coach Matt Howard recalled last week.
“[Former UM recruiting coordinator] Brennan Carroll didn’t waste much time on the phone,” Howard continued. “He was like, ‘Coach, we saw the film and really like Joe. What are the possibilities we could get him on a plane in two days?’ We talked to his parents, got him on the plane, and that was that. He was a Hurricane by the time he got back.”
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Brown (6-4, 323 pounds) may have been a late, emergency addition to last year’s signing class on paper. But he’s no fill-in. The redshirt freshman, who didn’t have the grades or the test scores to get any colleges to look at him until after his senior season at Paramount, ended training camp by running with the first team at right guard in UM’s final scrimmage.
Although Brown probably won’t start Saturday’s season-opener at Sun Life Stadium against Bethune-Cookman, coach Al Golden said the former high school defensive tackle will play a lot this season. Brown will likely spell returning 13-game starter Danny Isidora when he needs a break at right guard or when Isidora slides over to right tackle to replace starter Sunny Odogwu.
The Hurricanes, who signed 11 offensive linemen combined in their last two recruiting classes, are going to be playing a lot of young players the first two weeks of the season. With only 22 combined games of starting experience back between Isidora, center Nick Linder (four starts) and left tackle Trevor Darling (five starts), UM has no choice but to go with youth and inexperience.
“I told you a year ago I really liked him,” Golden said of Brown, who was named the San Gabriel Valley League’s Defensive Player of the Year as a prep junior and senior. “We had him up with the varsity a lot last year. We held him out and redshirted him. But that time up there really helped him. He’s an explosive young man, who can bend, has the requisite toughness. He’s smart, a second-level blocker. He has a long way to go in terms of technique and getting used to that, but I’m really pleased with him."
The fact Brown is at UM at all still gives his high school coach chills. Three years ago, Brown was heading down the same path of his older brother, Ma’a, a talented and gifted high school football star who didn’t apply himself to his academics and ended up paying for it. Ma’a ended up in junior college before dropping out, Brown said.
“When I first took the job here Ma’a was a senior — good enough at 6-5, 300 pounds to be a U.S. Army All-American,” Howard said. “I told Joe when he was slacking off as a sophomore that he didn’t want to end up like Ma’a. Joe started to work his butt off taking extra classes before school, after school and his GPA and test scores just kept on rising. Just after Signing Day he got what he needed and I sent his film out everywhere. It was awesome flying down to Miami this past spring and seeing Joe do his thing with the Canes.”
The fifth of eight children (six boys and two girls), Brown said he’s the first person in his family to go to a university. Growing up in Compton, Brown said, wasn’t easy — especially with a father whose roots were tied to the Crips, one of the largest and most violent street gangs in the country.
Before the Browns moved to Paramount (about a 15 minute drive east of Compton) in 2003, the family shared a two-bedroom apartment in Compton, Joe’s mother Sala explained. The children shared bunk beds. Sala said she taught her kids that whenever they heard gunshots it was time to run inside their home, lock the doors and stay away from the windows.
“I never saw a shooting up close, but you would hear the gunshots,” Joe said. “My Dad is an OG Crip. He doesn't like to say that. But as soon as he met my mom and settled down with his family he knew the right path. He taught us all that, that we had to take this path instead of that one. That’s why I try to set the example with my younger siblings. I see a lot of my cousins already different, following their older cousins, who smoked and drank at a younger age. I’m just trying to set the example. Education can take you to a far place.”
So far, it’s taken Brown 2,700 miles from Compton to Coral Gables. Still, he knows he has further to go to achieve his dreams of earning a college degree and playing professional football.
“We’re just so proud of Bubba,” said Sala, who gave her son that nickname because he was a big baby at birth (9 pounds, 8 ounces). “It’s going to be hard for us to go watch him play in a game, but we’re planning on going at least once. For now, we watch the games on TV and just scream any time he pops up on the sidelines. We pause the TV and take pictures of him. We watch all the interviews, read all the stories. We’re sharing in his dream.”
It took Brown his entire redshirt season to adjust physically for the demands of college football. But he’s confident he’s ready now.
Gibbons, by the way, transferred from Stanford to the University of South Florida in January. A St. Petersburg native, Gibbons was awarded a waiver to avoid having to sit out the 2015 season per regular NCAA transfer rules. He too is expected to contribute for the Bulls this season.
“Coming out of high school I wasn’t a big guy in the weight room,” Brown said. “I just always thought I had natural strength because I'm Polynesian. I came here and did the 225-pound bench press test and did horrible. The first time I did it I only had three reps. I’m at 21 reps now.
“Same with the [40-yard sprints]. When I first got out here, and did the [14 sprints of the 40-yard dash] I only did about three. Now, I do all 14 and it feels great."
Said Isidora: “You ask me — Joe is ready to contribute.”