COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nearly 1,500 miles from Norman, Okla., Brian Carlson couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
The Sparta (N.J.) Pope John XXIII head coach had just returned from a game in the Philadelphia suburbs more than two hours away. He turned on the Ohio State game just in time to see a familiar figure lined up as Ohio State’s X wide receiver against Oklahoma true freshman cornerback Parrish Cobb. He had three years of evidence of what his former player, Noah Brown, could do against one-on-one coverage, so what happened next almost seemed like a formality.
“If they throw that ball, there’s no way that kid’s not catching it,” Carlson remembers thinking.
Brown hauled in that pass from quarterback J.T. Barrett and followed that with three other touchdowns in Ohio State’s 45-24 rout of Oklahoma. Each time, he was single covered. Each time, the Sooners paid for it. It didn’t matter if it was Cobb or junior cornerbacks Jordan Thomas and Michiah Quick. Brown made them all look foolish and helped make Barrett look like a Heisman contender.
While most viewers probably couldn’t believe what they were seeing from Brown, Carlson couldn’t believe what he was seeing from the Sooners defense.
“Oh, my God, they’re covering him one-on-one again?” he said. “There’s just no way. “That’s what we used to do in high school. We used to isolate him, and if it was one-on-one there was nobody that could cover him.”
His third touchdown catch, an all-timer that landed him the top spot on SportsCenter’s top plays, came when Brown trapped the ball against Quick’s back with one hand and then controlled it by pinning it to his defender, effectively catching both the ball and the cornerback while also dragging both feet in bounds.
Are you kidding?!
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 18, 2016
Brown couldn’t remember another time he’d made a catch in that manner, but he’s been dropping jaws for years.
It was nothing new for Brown’s teammates, who’d routinely been impressed by him in practice only to watch in horror as his sophomore season was taken away from him by a broken leg less than two weeks before the 2015 season.
“What you look for in an X in our offense is a dog mentality,” Barrett said. “When the ball’s in the air, it’s his. It’s his to have. A lot of times it’s one-on-one coverage, and that’s the thing that Noah has.
“I’ve seen it in practice a lot. I guess that’s the funny thing – we see it in practice so it’s almost like it’s no big deal. And then when it happens in a game and everyone else sees it and it blows up like that it’s like we forgot that nobody else has seen that.”
Well, nobody outside of New Jersey. In addition to Carlson, the people most familiar with Brown are the ones who had nightmares about trying to stop him in high school.
Take Rockaway (N.J.) Morris Hills coach Mike Sabo, for instance. Sabo happened to be standing on the opposing sideline the last time Brown caught four touchdowns in a game — a 35-3 win for Pope John XXIII in 2013. He had nothing but nice things to say about Brown — “a class act and a great kid” — but also sounded like someone who was pleased it was other coaches’ jobs to try to stop him these days.
“He was a nightmare to scheme against,” Sabo said. “You knew he was going to beat you one way or the other. He was one of the best high school players we’ve ever seen. If you tried to high-low him, they’d throw a screen pass and he’d break six tackles and score a touchdown. If you used single coverage, he’d beat you over the top. There was nothing you could do.”
Not only was Brown a dominant red-zone threat in high school but he also showed off an ability to make eye-popping plays even back then.
Against Sparta in 2013, Brown caught two touchdowns and also hauled in a diving pass that looked like a horizontal counterpart to Odell Beckham’s vertical one-handed masterpiece in 2014. (You can watch Brown’s catch at the 0:35 mark of the video below.)
“I had to coach against him for four years and even as a freshman you knew he was a special breed of athlete,” said Sparta coach Frank Marchiano. “When it came to scheming him, you always had to know where he was and couldn’t cover him one-on-one.”
After a four-touchdown performance on national television, the rest of the world knows what New Jersey already did.