Vernell Brown is everything that is good about the Florida football program and the poster child for the way Urban Meyer intends the Gators to be both on and off the playing field. He’s got a degree from the University of Florida, the respect of his teammates and coaches, and until he broke his ankle against Vanderbilt, he was playing the cornerback position as well as anyone in the Southeastern Conference.
He couldn’t play Saturday in Florida’s blowout 34-7 win over Florida State but that doesn’t mean his presence wasn’t felt in a very big way. Just because Vernell Brown wasn’t on the field doesn’t mean he didn’t have a say in the outcome. That’s because he spent 60 minutes coaching up the talented kid with the big smile from Daytona Beach who was thrown into the fire on the big stage Saturday evening.
Saturday was Avery Atkins day to announce that he’ll spend the next three years on the highlight reels for Florida football. In a statement win, he was a statement player on defense and special teams. His final tally was four tackles, two passes broken up, a recovered fumble and one pass interception. When he wasn’t making plays, he was in coverage so tight that FSU’s receivers couldn’t make big plays. He did it all with Vernell Brown coaching him up every time he came off the field.
“I look up to him like a big brother,” said Atkins, the freshman from Daytona Beach who was a four-star recruit for the Gators just last February. “All I could think about was him and how he wanted to go out with a big bang and this is his last game so I just wanted to go out and play my hardest.”
Florida State tried to pick on Atkins in the first quarter when Drew Weatherford tried to hit Decody Fagg on an out pattern but Atkins was there to make the breakup. His tight coverage on Greg Carr in the second quarter put him in perfect position to make a diving interception when the ball ricocheted off Carr’s hands. That set up a Chris Hetland field goal with 1:23 remaining in the third quarter that gave the Gators a 17-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Weatherford hit Fagg across the middle but Jarvis Herring forced a fumble and somehow Atkins came out of the scrum with the ball. Five plays later, Florida had a two-yard touchdown run from Markus Manson and a 27-0 lead.
Every time that he made a play, Avery Atkins looked up and there was Vernell, wearing his number 16 jersey on the sidelines. When he came off the field, there was a slap on the back and congratulations but then it was time to get back to work. Throughout the game, Brown kept encouraging Atkins to use his natural ability and tipping him off about what to expect next.
“Vernell was like a big brother and a coach today,” said Atkins, who was playing corner and tailback last year for Daytona Beach Mainland. “Basically, it was like he was playing the game the way he was acting out there. I don’t think even the fans were more hyped than he was.”
When Vernell Brown was signed by the Gators, he was probably the least popular recruit ever by Steve Spurrier. Fans couldn’t believe that a valuable scholarship had been wasted on a player so small. He weighed only 148 pounds when he came out of high school and message boards lit up with criticism. He shuffled around at wide receiver and got pounded unmercifully by fans when he was called on to make a pass on a reverse in the closing minute of the Outback Bowl game during his redshirt freshman year. The pass, ill-conceived from the moment it was called, was intercepted and fans spent two years never letting Brown forget it.
The first thing Urban Meyer did when he became Florida’s coach was to wipe the slate clean for everyone and that meant overlooking the fact that Brown wasn’t exactly prototypical size for a defensive back in the Southeastern Conference. But it didn’t take long for Meyer to discover what an asset to the program he has in the little guy from Gainesville High School. Brown became a team leader in the weight room and during spring practice he showed he could cover one on one. During the two-a-days of August he was the defender making one big play after another. Once the season arrived, he dispelled all the talk by the naysayers, proving he could play big time, in your face corner in the SEC.
But he did more than just play like an All-SEC corner. He led like an All-World Leader and it showed most in the way he took the precocious 18-year-old from Daytona Beach under his wing, coaching him, nurturing him, advising him and encouraging him every step of the way. When it came to Avery Atkins, Vernell Brown always had time to answer questions, always had helpful advice to give whether on or off the field, and never was too busy if the kid needed some attention.
“Every since day one when I stepped on campus he’s been there for me,” said Atkins. “Anything I ever needed, even if it was just someone to talk to, he was there for me every time. He’s a real inspiration for me.”
Inspired by Brown, Atkins never backed down from FSU’s talented receivers, not even Carr, who is 6-6 (Atkins is 5-11). He played tight coverage and showed the ability to jam at the line as well as break on the football in a timely manner. When the Seminoles tried to pick on him, he responded.
“He was terrific ... he just made play after play after play,” said Meyer.
Atkins wasn’t the only one who was inspired by Vernell Brown. Dee Webb was also playing for the little guy and unlike the last three games, when he was burned time and time again, Webb covered the way Brown was covering people before he got hurt.
Playing the other side of the field from Atkins, Webb was in on six tackles, forced a fumble and broke up a pass. Meyer said Webb played the game of his life and then after the game, the junior corner from Jacksonville paid homage to Vernell.
Meyer described an emotional post game locker room where he saw “Dee Webb standing up and say the reason he played so hard tonight was simply for Vernell Brown because Vernell Brown does everything right and Dee at times maybe doesn’t always do everything right but he played for Vernell Brown. If that came from the heart then we’ve got things heading in the right direction a little bit. That was a special moment in the locker room when that happened.”
Meyer never worried about Brown, who played hard and played tough on every single down. Saturday, Meyer saw some of those same qualities in Webb, who has the size that Brown could only dream about.
“Dee Webb played his best game I believe as a Gator,” said Meyer. “I wasn’t here in the past but what Charlie Strong told me is that Dee Webb is a talented guy and he’s one of those guys who everyone says has great potential. Potential is an ugly word in athletics. He played great tonight. I really admired the way he played.”
Florida’s program is heading in the right direction and one of the reasons it’s going that way is because of one Vernell Brown. His contributions on and off the field are immeasurable this season. Judging by the way Avery Atkins and Dee Webb played Saturday against Florida State, his contributions will be felt when the 2005 football season is just a distant memory.
The little guy made his mark on Florida football and it never was more clear just how BIG Vernell Brown was until Saturday against FSU. You can’t always measure size in feet and inches. Sometimes you measure it in heart and leadership. When you measure Vernell Brown in terms of heart and leadership, he’s a giant.