He is an anomaly. Even his coach fumbles around trying to describe him. Says he hasn't seen another guy with his talents. But perhaps the most apt comparison to sum up budding superstar Brandon Browner isn't related to football. Nope, think about another Oregon State standout, another tall, rangy guy with shutdown skills -- OSU basketball great Gary Payton. That's how special Browner could be.
The 6-4, 202-pound sophomore corner, the Pac-10's Freshman of the Year last season, is the cornerstone of the league's top secondary, a super-sized group that could be the nation's most underrated defensive backfield.
"Browner is really something else," Cal coach Jeff Tedford says. "He's got long arms, can run and he knows how to use the tricks of the trade. He made some plays against us that just make you say, 'Wow!' "
Tedford should know. Browner and the Beavers put the clamps on Tedford's high-powered passing attack, holding Bears standout QB Aaron Rodgers to a 9-for-34 performance and just 52 yards passing in a 35-21 OSU victory last October at Cal.
OSU coach Mike Riley, a former DB coach with the New Orleans Saints, says what makes Browner such a force is how deceptive he is. "Brandon doesn't have blazing speed, but he is so rangy that when it looks like he's getting beat, he sticks those long arms out there and he just gets to the ball," says Riley. "Plus he's physically and mentally tough."
Riley says now Browner's biggest challenge is to battle through the thought that he's "made it" by maintaining the mental focus he had in '03.
Browner was tied for the team lead with six INTs, including three against ASU, and he has such a presence that he obscures Aric Williams, the Beavers other corner, who may well be the conference's most polished coverman. The tandem's ability to lock up one-on-one was a huge reason why the Beavers led the Pac-10 in defense and finished seventh nationally.
Better still, veteran free safety Mitch Meeuwsen, a 6-3, 205-pound senior who has 14 career picks, is back to play centerfield. "Mitch is very quiet, but very intelligent," Riley says. "He's got great instincts and is our leader. The guy who gets everybody lined up for us."
"They've really got a great group back there," says Oregon's Mike Bellotti.
The Beavers' back four is one of the few in the nation that has the size to match up with any wideouts, at 6-4, 6-0, 6-3 and 6-3 (the other DB is strong safety Sabby Piscitelli, who's 6-3, 217.) OSU's secondary, though, would've been that much more imposing if it still had redshirt freshman Justin Williams. The 6-2, 180-pound corner, a 4.35 40 guy, might've been the best athlete in the secondary. But Williams was killed on July 23 when the pickup truck he was a passenger in, collided with an SUV. (The Beavers will wear helmets with the sticker "JW" this season, and a scholarship fund has been established in his name.)
"It is a tough time," Riley said. "It is hard to be excited about anything, but we will be looking forward to the season. We will always remember that young man. He was a big part of our team and a fine, fine person."
The OSU coaches have reminded players to take something positive from Williams' death and channel it as a source of motivation. After all, just three years ago, the Beavers finished fifth in the country, routing Notre Dame in a BCS bowl and now, well, most experts have written them off. Especially since the team lost franchise TB Steven Jackson and top tackler Richard Siegler. Browner, for one, says he's learned not to take anything for granted.
He says he's going to live every day like it's his last, because "Justin would do something like that."
The Beavers feel like they have a lot to prove, a lot of doubters to answer. They'll get a good chance to make their case right away. They open at LSU on ESPN Sept. 4.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment comes out later this month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.