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‘He’s all over the field’: Defensive tackle Matthew Brown caught eye of Eastern Washington’s coaches at a young age

Eastern Washington defensive lineman Matthew Brown chases Idaho quarterback Gevani McCoy out of the pocket during the first half on Nov. 5, 2022, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (James Snook/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Bigger than everyone else and wearing pads suited for players years older , Matt Brown elicited skepticism about his age as early as elementary school.

As he bowled through opponents – and sometimes teammates – with ease, that feeling only grew.

“When I coached him in young football, others would say, ‘There’s no way he’s in that grade,’ ” Jeremy McMillan said.

McMillan, head football coach at Hoquiam (Washington) High, has known Brown, now a defensive tackle at Eastern Washington, for the majority of Brown’s life. He coached him in football and basketball as far back as elementary school and remained his coach during Brown’s four years at the 1A school about 80 miles west of Tacoma.

By his senior year, Brown was playing all over the football field, “just to see what teams would do,” McMillan said.

So perhaps it is no surprise that for two consecutive games, Brown, a 6-foot-3, 306-pound defensive tackle, has led the Eagles in tackles. He had seven in last week’s 48-13 win over Cal Poly and 10 the week before in a 47-35 loss to Portland State, twice as many as any teammate.

Perhaps it is also no surprise that Brown ranked fifth among all FCS players at his position in the latest PFF evaluation released this week.

“His physicality and his motor is crazy. He’s all over the field,” EWU senior defensive end Brock Harrison said earlier this week. “(Leading the team in tackles) says a lot being a defensive tackle. You have to be everywhere to get that stat. That’s what makes Matt (great), is how hard he plays. His motor is just never ending.”

This week, Eastern Washington (4-5, 3-3 Big Sky) visits Montana State – a team that also recruited Brown – and will try to end the fifth-ranked Bobcats’ 25-game home winning streak. The Bobcats (7-2, 5-1) like to run the ball, and the Eagles have struggled this year to stop it.

But the Eagles have become healthier up front. They have simplified their scheme and are looking to right their defense to get back over .500, something Eastern could do if it wins its final two games.

“We’ve got to finish strong, and that’s what we’ve been harping on,” Harrison said. “It is disappointing where we are. Some of those losses do hurt, but there’s no point looking back at those. You’ve got to look ahead, and we’ve got to finish as strong as we can.”

‘They just got out of the way’

Hoquiam sits at the mouth of the Chehalis River, where it empties into Grays Harbor along the Pacific Coast .

It’s a rainy spot, and it’s not necessarily that easy to get to.

But throughout the years Brown played at Hoquiam, Eastern Washington coaches were a familiar presence.

There was the time when Brian Strandley, then EWU’s defensive line coach, sat through an entire practice with rain blowing in sideways.

There were countless times Ian Shoemaker would stop by, first as the Central Washington head coach.

“Shoemaker was at Central and I distinctly remember him telling me, when Matt was an eighth-grader, that he would never get Matt. There’s no way,” McMillan said.

But then Shoemaker became Eastern’s offensive coordinator, and in the fall of 2019 Brown committed to Eastern.

“They were awesome,” McMillan said of Eastern’s coaches, who still check in at Hoquiam regularly.

In high school, Brown played running back, tight end and linebacker, and even a little quarterback. His senior year, when Hoquiam reached the first round of state, Brown threw a couple of touchdown passes and ran for eight more while recording 74 tackles on defense.

McMillan has all kinds of stories about Brown, who also played basketball in high school and on AAU teams.

There’s the story of a sixth-grade banquet, when Brown’s parents told McMillan that they were giving him a special present: Brown himself, who was going to attend Hoquiam, an hour south of where he grew up in Taholah, after his parents bought a house in Hoquiam.

There’s also the story of when an opposing team spent a bit too much time on the Hoquiam sideline before a game. Brown begged his coach to let him play special teams on the opening kickoff so he could get a good, legal hit on the returner as payback for the infraction.

“We put him right in the middle, and the whole other team, they just got out of the way,” McMillan said.

McMillan has many more, the product of all the time Brown spent with McMillan and his two sons who are around Brown’s age.

But for all the positions Brown played at Hoquiam, he didn’t play much defensive line, which made for an adjustment when Brown got to Eastern.

“It was such a hard transition,” Brown said this week. “I had to grind for the first season and learn from Caleb Davis and Josh Jerome. They took me in and showed me the way. I was hungry.”

As a true freshman in the shortened 2020-21 spring season, Brown played in four games and recorded one sack. Over the next two seasons, Brown played in 22 games with 15 starts, making three sacks and drawing praise from his teammate Davis.

“Matt Brown, he’s one of the guys that has a lot of potential,” Davis, then a senior, said last November. “He’s one of the guys that plays the hardest on the team. He’s always running to the ball, trying to finish piles. It’s been awesome to see him grow.”

This season, Brown missed the last three games of September with an injury. But when he’s been on the field, he has been an explosive player, EWU defensive line coach Matt Ulrich said.

“A lot of things come really naturally to him,” Ulrich said. “He’s got some really good tools for his size. He moves well, changes direction, and as a football player he’s got that great motor. He’s different from some of the other guys.”

One difference is his level of experience. Aside from redshirt senior Jacob Newsom, who has also dealt with injuries this year – including one that kept him out of the Portland State game – the Eagles have relied on three freshmen alongside Brown at the defensive tackle spot.

Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Perez and Justis La’ulu – who last year was an offensive lineman – have played in all nine games and have 32 tackles between them. True freshman Jirah Leaupepetele played in the third game of the season and, though he’s injured, has contributed with seven tackles and half a sack.

At the defensive end spots, the Eagles are almost equally reliant on freshmen. After Harrison and fellow senior Da’Marcus Johnson, the Eagles have primarily leaned on redshirt freshman Ben Voigtlaender and true freshman Jared Radke, who each have 11 tackles.

That youthfulness has been a factor – but not the only one – in some of the team’s troubles stopping the run. Allowing 217.9 yards per game, Eastern’s rushing defense ranks 117th in the FCS.

“A lot of it was more just us getting out of our gaps in a few of those games,” Harrison said. “We weren’t doing the basics well, which is what really hurt us.”

In response to that, Ulrich said the team has simplified its schemes up front.

“I just want them to play the best football of the season (these last two games),” Ulrich said, “to continue to get better at the basics.”

Ulrich said he has “taken some things off their plate mentally” and focused on the fundamentals of taking on blocks, shedding those blocks and then making tackles.

Regardless, it has been a year of growth on the front line. Harrison said he’s seen improvement in all of the freshmen since the start of the year, when they debuted at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis against North Dakota State – this season’s fourth-best rushing team in the FCS.

“At first, they were maybe a little timid,” Harrison said. “But seeing their confidence (grow) and seeing them let loose and go make a play they know they can make is pretty cool. A lot of time with the young guys, it’s a confidence thing more than a skill thing.”

Two of those freshmen are actually two years older than most would be, as Perez (Othello High School) and Voigtlaender (Mead) served faith-based missions after graduating in 2020. But Harrison said there is no substitute for game reps – the game is just so fast.

“Even if you’re older and you haven’t played, it’s all kind of the same as being a freshman,” Harrison said.

Montana State provides a significant test. The Bobcats rank second nationally in rushing (305.1 yards per game) and they gain those yards with a variety of players, including quarterbacks Tommy Mellot (388 yards) and Sean Chambers (580).

Now a more seasoned veteran in the group, Brown said he sees his role as that of an older guy who shows the younger guys the way. He is also passionate about doing the same in Hoquiam, where he wants to remain involved after football. It’s part of the reason he is majoring in criminal justice.

But McMillan said he believes it may be a little while before Brown returns.

“I honestly believe if he is at the right place, at the right time, he can play on Sundays,” McMillan said. “That’s his dream, and I think he can do it.

“He’s super athletic for a dude playing (defensive tackle). I wouldn’t want to block him.”