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Defensive adversity at Washington State hasn’t wiped the smile off freshman Travion Brown’s face

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 19, 2019

New Mexico State running back Naveon Mitchell  tries to get away from Washington State linebacker Travion Brown  during the second half Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Pullman. (Young Kwak / AP)
New Mexico State running back Naveon Mitchell tries to get away from Washington State linebacker Travion Brown during the second half Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Pullman. (Young Kwak / AP)

PULLMAN – Nine games played. One start. A few bone-jarring hits along the way.

In many respects, Travion Brown’s first four months on the Palouse have gone exactly as the true freshman linebacker has planned. Probably better in some cases.

“It was everything I thought it would be,” Brown said. “Coming in learning the playbook, thick playbook. Being able to contribute any way that you can. Just being humble and taking everything that you can from your teammates that they teach you.

“It’s been a great experience.”

It also says something about Brown, and how Washington State coaches regard him, that the first-year rookie was rolled out to speak with reporters following the Cougars’ practice in Pullman Tuesday evening.

Brown’s been the only true freshman interviewed in a group setting this season – something only a handful of WSU rookies have the duty or privilege of doing. While his play usually has been the thing that’s commanded attention this season, an elder teammate was impressed as he listened to Brown formulate thoughtful answers to a variety of questions about his short career on the Palouse.

“Already better than me,” an eavesdropping Anthony Gordon remarked as Brown left the room and the quarterback took his place.

When Brown was recruited to WSU out of Temecula, California, the four-star prospect projected as someone who’d have long-term success with the Cougars, particularly because he might also be able to carve out an early role.

Rather, multiple roles.

Sometimes, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Brown lines up as a traditional middle linebacker. In other packages, he plays as a hybrid nickel defensive back, and it’s the spot where he earned the first start of his career two games ago against California. During fall camp, the Cougars also worked him in as a “Rush” linebacker, probably because of his prowess coming off the edge during his senior season at Linfield Christian, when Brown recorded 122 tackles, 37 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

“Well, we liked him physically like we liked the other (signees),” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “But I think his attitude is what allows him to excel at a faster rate.”

The attitude has been important as Brown’s waded through a freshman season that’s seen him some early success on a personal level but also endure the lumps the Cougars have as a team. Some players make it five years without a defensive coordinator change, but Brown was only through five games of his young career when Tracy Claeys resigned, leaving the freshman’s main position coach, Roc Bellantoni, in change of the defense on an interim basis.

“I just stick to my teammates. My teammates at the end of the day are going to be ones that have my back with anything, so I know I can lean back and fall back on them,” Brown said. “Then any coach I get I’m going to have their back 100 percent. Like coach Roc, helluva coach and I’m going to have his back no matter what, and I’m going to play my heart out for him.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m sacrificing for my team and I’m sacrificing for my coaches. I’m not really worried about who leaves or anything like that.”

Brown’s at 18 tackles on the season, but he already has a single-game high of eight, which came in the second game of the season against Northern Colorado. Most impressive about that was Brown didn’t have his first defensive tackle until there were less than 4 minutes left in the third quarter. Aside from an early special teams tackle, he had seven in a span of less than 20 minutes.

If WSU can manufacture some type of defensive renaissance, either in these final two or three games or next season, Brown will almost surely play a role. He knows what it looks like, having taken a recruiting visit to Pullman for the 2018 homecoming game, when WSU beat Utah 28-24 in a mostly defensive skirmish.

“It was fun to watch,” Brown said. “Brought the whole family up, sat behind the bench and enjoyed the game. … It just made me want to be a Coug.”

Brown then picked WSU despite holding offers from Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, UCF, Utah, Iowa State, San Diego State and others. He’d be playing for a larger postseason prize had he chosen any of those schools over the five-win Cougars – Oregon and Utah especially – but Brown’s confident he found the right place and – even amid WSU’s defensive struggles – at the right time, too.

“It was everything that I thought it would be,” Brown said of WSU’s “Speed D” scheme, “then watching it on TV just made me even more excited to play.”

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