July 25, 2013
Junior Justin Garrett says doubters motivate him every day (Jason Matheson photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - As Justin Garrett watched last season disintegrate before his eyes, he began to wonder. Maybe, he thought, his future was in something other than football.
In 2011, Garrett had come to Auburn as a linebacker from Tucker (Ga.) High School with high hopes and expectations. But despite eye-opening speed and athleticism, playing time was hard to come by. Nagging injuries made things even harder.
"It crossed my mind that maybe God had a different plan for me," Garrett says. "I thought maybe I should focus on academics. I found myself doing better in school, knowing football doesn't last for long."
Garrett couldn't have known it at the time, but things were about to change in a big way.
After Auburn's 3-9 record in 2012, Gus Malzahn took over as head coach. He hired Ellis Johnson as defensive coordinator. And Johnson quickly decided that Garrett, at 6-foot-1 and some 220 pounds with the speed of a defensive back, looked like he would fit at the hybrid Star position, a combination safety and linebacker, in Johnson's defense.
Then and there, everything changed. Garrett was a defensive standout in the spring and goes toward his junior season with soaring expectations. He's on the verge of beating the odds yet again.
When Garrett was in the second grade, his father, Carl, wanted him to join his older brother, Jamoris Slaughter, and play football. Garrett's mother, Debbie, wasn't so sure about football. She was afraid her sons would get hurt. Young Justin wasn't so sure either.
"I was actually scared to start playing football at first," Garrett says. "I just watched my brother play. I wanted to score touchdowns, but I didn't want to get hit. My dad got me to start playing football. I played wide receiver and tight end. I scored my first touchdown and fell in love with the game and started trying to be as good as my brother."
In their Stone Mountain, Ga., neighborhood, Garrett and his brother honed their skills in rough and tumble games.
"As soon as we got out of school we played neighborhood football and basketball," Garrett says. "Really, that's where I developed a name for myself. My brother and I were the best players out there. I was one of the youngest guys out there. It was throw them up, bust them up."
For Garrett, being as good as his brother was a tall order. Slaughter would become a star at Tucker High, playing cornerback and safety, and sign with Notre Dame as a safety. Despite missing nine games last season after suffering a torn Achilles, he was drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns last April.
Carl Garrett says his younger son's talent and athleticism were clear from an early age.
"When Justin puts his mind to it, he can do just about anything he wants to do," Carl Garrett says. "I've always seen glimpses that Justin had a lot of talent. It was just a matter of getting him to see it and believe in it. Size and speed and stuff like that you can't teach."
Even as Garrett grew faster and stronger and became a standout high school player in his own right, he always seemed to be in someone's shadow. In his senior year at Tucker, fellow linebacker James Vaughters was considered the can't-miss prospect and would eventually sign with Stanford.
"A lot of people always told me I'd never be as good as my brother," Garrett says. "People always criticized me and talked so good about everybody else. All the negative stuff really motivated me and gave me a drive and an anger to prove everybody wrong that said I couldn't do it.
"I play angry now every time I strap up. Sometimes I may even drop a few tears before I go out to practice. This opportunity will only last so long. I want to take advantage of it."
Garrett wasn't sure he would be a starter his junior season at Tucker, but an injury opened the door. He recalls making 10 tackles "with two or three sacks" in his first start. His journey to Auburn had begun. Later that year, he was working in the weight room when Georgia coach Mark Richt showed up. Richt had come to check on Vaughters.
"I was squatting 400-something pounds and Coach Richt walked in," Garrett says. "He was asking who is that guy right there. A few days later, I got my first offer from UGA. My coach told me that, once UGA offered me, a lot of other people would offer me."
Sure enough, the offers began to come - from Auburn, Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State, Tennessee, North Carolina State and others. Garrett knew little about Auburn until he talked to former teammate and Auburn defensive back Neiko Thorpe.
"He was telling me about the atmosphere and things like that," Garrett says. "I really didn't know anything about Auburn football, just UGA. He was telling me about it. I didn't want to stay in Georgia. I wanted to get out, but not too far. I didn't want to go to Notre Dame, where my brother was. I felt like Auburn was the best place for me to go."
Franklin Stephens, Garrett's coach at Tucker and now the head coach at Lamar County in Georgia, says he believed even before the recruiting attention came that Garrett had the ability to play college football at a high level.
"I told coaches at that time he was the best-kept secret in Georgia," Stephens says. "He finally got a chance to play his junior year. Once the season started and the way he was playing, it was obvious what he could do."
Though he'd grown up following Georgia more than any other team, Garrett wanted to go out of state. He was intrigued by what Thorpe told him.
Garrett committed to Auburn in the summer of 2010. He was done with recruiting and concentrated on doing all he could to help his high school team win. Then it was on to Auburn, where he would once again have to wait. Never was that wait harder than last season.
"I've never experienced anything like that before," Garrett says. "It was hard because I wasn't able to go out there and help. Watching us lose and the way we were being talked about, I couldn't help and couldn't change it. I go back home and people I played with have bowl checks and bowl gifts. They are having a good time while we are just sitting at home watching games. My brother's team was in the national championship game. That was really hard, just watching all that stuff."
After Johnson signed on as defensive coordinator and began looking over the players available, Garrett looked like the ideal choice for the Star position. Once spring practice had come and gone, Johnson knew he was right. Garrett, Johnson says, was the best player on defense over the course of the spring.
"He has great closing speed," Johnson says. "That's huge when you make open-field and in-space tackles. He has good contact speed. In other words, when he's about to make contact, he has that explosiveness where he runs through it. He doesn't gather and settle. He runs through things."
Eight days away from the start of preseason practice, Garrett is more excited than he's been at Auburn. He sees happy days ahead.
"Everybody is buying into the system and doing what the coaches say," Garrett says. "I feel like there's a big change, not just in football but off the field, in workouts, FCA and everything. We do it all together as unit.
"We really just want to win. That's what it boils down to."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: