Tracking the Stars of the Future

Football Recruiting Report
Friday, March 14, 2014

By Sammy Batten

Recruiting winds shifting east

Ayden-Grifton star Brown's commitment to ECU reinforces developing trend

By Sammy Batten
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Recruiting Class of 2015 Thumbnail Sketches...

Paul Cornwell is seeing a shift in Eastern North Carolina when it comes to high school football players.

And Cornwell should know. He played football at Ayden-Grifton High School just outside of Greenville, and has served as his alma mater's head coach the last nine years. So Cornwell knows Eastern North Carolina football and the trends of its players very well.

"When I was growing up most people were N.C. State fans or a (North) Carolina fan,'' Cornwell said Monday. "Now kids in our area are growing up during a time East Carolina is enjoying success, and they've become fans. They can see themselves being Pirates and they're excited about playing close to home.''

Cornwell had an excellent case in point playing for him last season in safety Drew Turnage, who wound up signing a national letter of intent to play for East Carolina in February. On Sunday, he produced more evidence to support his belief when Chargers rising senior defensive lineman Justin Brown decided to join the Pirates.

Brown became the first member of ECU's recruiting Class of 2015 when he gave a verbal commitment to the Pirates. ECU was the first school to offer a scholarship to the 6-foot-3, 318-pounder in late February, but schools like Clemson, Georgia, N.C. State and North Carolina had been showing serious interest, according to Cornwell.

"He's part of that new age of Pirate fans,'' Cornwell said. "He's grown up seeing their success. Plus, he really loves (head) Coach (Ruffin) McNeill a lot, and (defensive line) Coach (Marc) Yellock, too. (Linebackers) Coach (John) Wiley did a great job recruiting him. And I think the way they do things at East Carolina as far promoting a family atmosphere appealed to Justin. It's not that others don't offer those type of things, too, but at this point he felt like that was the best fit for him.''

Brown is coming off a junior season at Ayden-Grifton in which he missed a significant portion of the season due to a partial MCL tear. But despite being limited he still proved to be a key element as the Chargers rallied from an 0-6 start to win seven straight games and the Eastern Carolina 2-A Conference title. Ayden-Grifton advanced to the third round of the state playoffs before falling to Northeastern, 41-35.

The Eastern Carolina Conference coaches thought enough of Brown to award him Defensive Player of the Year honors after he made nine tackles for loss and four sacks. The Kinston Free Press also selected Brown to its all-area squad as a defensive lineman.

The performance was a sharp contrast to when Brown first arrived at Ayden-Grifton as a ninth grader in 2011.

"He's been with us and he'd kind of developed,'' Cornwell said. "He was a big kid coming in as a ninth grader. He's always had a great frame. But becoming a great player is as much about mental maturity as it is physical maturity. He gradually realized there's more to it than just being a big kid. You have to work and learn things every day.

"So it was just a matter of him coming in and learning. Once he figured out he had to work every day to make himself a better player, he began to progress as a player. But he always had the big frame and the long arms and you could see he was a good athlete. We knew the potential was there physically, if it all came together.''

After spending his freshman year on the junior varsity, Brown played defensive end and offensive tackle on the varsity as a sophomore for an Ayden-Grifton team that went 9-3 and reached the second round of the state 1-AA playoffs.

Brown followed up his stellar football season by distinguishing himself on the wrestling mat. He produced a 50-5 overall record in the 285-pound weight class and advanced all the way to the state 1-A championship bout before losing on points to William Robertson of North Rowan, 9-5.

Because he exceeded the weight limit this winter, Brown couldn't compete in wrestling. But after returning from his knee injury, he helped solidify an Ayden-Grifton defense featuring Turner and middle linebacker Jake Wright.

"When he came back, he pretty much dominated the line of scrimmage,'' Cornwell said. "Nobody could block him with one person.

"In our second-round playoff game against Edenton (Holmes), they were driving on about our 20- or 25-yard line. They had a third down, the quarterback drops back. Justin came in there with a big sack for a 15-yard loss. He takes this kid down, who is a third of his size, and shows that even at 330 pounds at the time he was a good enough athlete to make that play.''

Cornwell, who earned his undergraduate and Master's degrees at ECU, said the Pirates have recruited Brown to play nose guard in their 3-4 defensive alignment.

"He's a big, strong, athletic kid who is quick off the ball,'' Cornwell said. "I think he's a guy they can build around in the middle of their defense. For what they do, he's perfect and I think he'll be a great fit.''

Landing Brown helps ECU start to fill one of its needs on defense in the recruiting Class of 2015. Both Chrishon Rose and Terry Williams, who were the top two nose tackles for the Pirates last season, are on schedule to complete their eligibility after the 2014 season, so they need to be replaced on the roster.

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03/14/2014 03:53 AM