This time last year, Brandin Echols was playing at Northwest Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi. Now he’s in the SEC and is becoming a household name at the University of Kentucky.
The Southeastern Conference is the most competitive conference in college football. For many athletes lucky enough to earn a spot on an SEC roster, it takes more than one year to adjust to the high level of play the conference demands.
For Kentucky cornerback Brandin Echols, the adjustment has been seemingly simple. In his first year at UK, Echols has anchored a Wildcats secondary that not many expected much from into one of the best in the country.
While Echols has made playing cornerback in the SEC look easy, his journey to Lexington was not. Echols grew up in Southaven, Mississippi, located just 14 miles from Memphis, Tennessee.
“It was a nice environment, but you start trying to get into stuff you’re not supposed to,” Echols said.
Echols attended Southaven High School, where he was a three-sport athlete. He played basketball and ran track where, as a senior, he earned a spot on the Clarion-Ledger’s All-State boys’ track team. He was also a dominant football player who affected the game in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams.
As a senior, Echols caught 29 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns and added 906 yards on the ground with eight scores; defensively, he recorded 11 tackles, got to the quarterback for two sacks and grabbed an interception. On special teams, he added 604 return yards and four touchdowns.
With these numbers, Echols had the attention of coaches at the Division One level; however, there was one thing preventing these schools from adding the Magnolia State star to their roster: poor grades.
“What led me to Northwest was more of a grades thing,” Echols said. “I had D-1 colleges coming in and looking at me, but they asked for a transcript, and it was over.”
While Division One coaches did not bite, the coaching staff from the Northwest Mississippi Community College Rangers in Senatobia, Mississippi, did.
Among the coaches from Northwest who watched Echols play in high school was head coach Benjy Parker.
“The first time I saw Brandin was in high school and he was playing quarterback and they’d snap it to him and let him run,” Parker said of his first impression of Echols. “He kinda got gimped up with an ankle the night I watched and he’d get right back up and kept battling, kept battling and kept battling so I saw first hand he was a really good athlete.”
With the coaching staff impressed with his skillset, Echols decided to attend Northwest, putting his Division One aspirations on hold for two seasons as he earned a two-year degree in Senatobia. This is called the junior college (JUCO) route.
When Echols stepped on Northwest’s campus, the plan was for him to play wide receiver for the Rangers. Instead, the coaching staff had other plans. They wanted Echols’ focus on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback.
Defensive backs coach Jonathan Webster, who recruited Echols to Northwest alongside Parker, said he was the one to approach the then-receiver about changing positions.
“We had some guys go down at defensive back, so we were short,” he said, “and basically, I approached Brandin and asked him about coming over to the defensive side of the ball.”
This was not something Echols, who compiled 1,312 yards of total offense as a high school senior, really wanted.
“He didn’t love it,” Webster said of his conversation with the freshman.
Echols added, “At first, when I switched, I did not think I’d accomplish anything because I played receiver all my life. When they moved me to defensive back, I had very low confidence because I did not know what I was doing out there.”
Despite the fact that Echols was unhappy with the coaching staff’s decision, Webster made one simple request:
“I just asked him to give me a week and come out and give me all you got.”
As Echols bought in, Webster quickly noticed that the position change was going to pay off for his young player.
“The first thing I noticed, even though he did not necessarily embrace the idea at the beginning of playing defensive back, is that even with that going on, he played in practice as hard as anyone I ever coached,” Webster said. “So right away that made me fall in love with the type of person and player I knew he had the potential to be.”
Parker was also impressed with Echols’s work ethic. “He always did everything we asked him to do,” Parker said. “He would be everywhere we’d ask him to be, he’d always work hard and he’d always compete.”
Not only did Echols quickly show the right attitude, but he also was quick to prove he could indeed handle playing defensive back.
“After about a day or so of coaching him in my mind, I was like, Dang, this kid has some juice,” Webster said. “If he were to buy into this thing, he could legitimately have a future.”
And buy in he did. As a freshman at Northwest, Echols recorded three interceptions, broke up five passes and recorded 34 total tackles.
Then as a sophomore in 2018, Echols broke out. He earned second-team National Junior College Athletic Association All-America honors and was named first-team Mississippi Association Of Community And Junior Colleges (MACJC) after recording a league-high six interceptions and recording 49 total tackles, 12 pass break-ups and three tackles for a loss.
“He was hands down the best corner in our league,” Webster said of Echols’ two years at Northwest. “I’ve been fortunate enough to coach some good ones. I’ve had several that have gone on and played Division I football. I’ve had one that’s gotten drafted that came out of here but from a skill set, Brandin athletically was as talented or more talented than any corner I can think of that’s been through this league in a long time.”
At a new position and with two stellar years of JUCO ball under his belt, Echols was ready to become Webster’s newest Division I football product.
247 Sports ranked Echols as the seventh-best JUCO cornerback in the nation and the 59th overall best JUCO prospect. He received division one offers from schools far from home, such as Oregon State, Minnesota and Houston and schools right in his backyard — Middle Tennessee State, Memphis and Ole Miss all extended offers. However, when it came time to make a decision, it was a school that was neither too close nor too far from home that Echols decided to attend: The University of Kentucky.
By choosing Kentucky, Echols decided to jump from JUCO football to the highest level of college football by playing in the SEC. As if this weren’t hard enough, Echols was also being counted on to be one of the faces to replace a 2018 Kentucky secondary that lost four starters to the NFL and played a major role in helping the Wildcats put together a 10-win season for the first time in four decades.
Upon arrival at Kentucky, Echols noticed one aspect of the SEC game that was very different than JUCO: game speed.
“I was always taught to move at full speed, but this was different full speed,” Echols said.
Despite the increase in game speed, no task asked has appeared too large for Echols to handle in his first year as a Wildcat. In 10 games so far this season, Echols has recorded 42 total tackles, has broken up eight passes (which ranks fifth in the SEC) and has forced two fumbles with one on a strip-sack, which came against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in his home state.
“I think he’s done a really good job of working extremely hard, taking the coaching,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said of Echols. “He’s extremely competitive… and I’ve been pleased with his competitive nature.”
Back in Senatobia, both Parker and Webster have watched their former star shine on the big-stage from afar.
“I’ve heard he’s doing really really good… and I expected that,” Parker said.
“I can still see Brandin embracing becoming a technician and that’s exciting for me because that’s something I hardball here,” Webster added. “As I watch him, I watch from more of a coaching perspective than a fan perspective and I see him working on his technique constantly. And that makes me proud.”
As for Kentucky’s secondary as a whole, it ranks as the ninth-best pass defense in the nation and is tied with Clemson and Ohio State for having allowed the least amount of passing touchdowns (six) this season.
“You heard the rumors saying that we’d be the downfall of the team,” Echols said of the secondary’s surprising season. “We took that to heart and we kept a chip on our shoulder and still keep a chip on our shoulder to this day and just keep grinding to get better.”
While Echols is off to a great start with the Wildcats, he still has plenty of aspects of his game he’d like to see improve.
“One, I’ve got to get my hands on the ball more,” he said. “I got to get more interceptions. I’ve got to tackle better. I’ve missed a couple of tackles I shouldn’t have missed and NFL scouts will be looking at that.”
Echols will have the chance to keep improving when his Wildcats take on the U-T Martin Skyhawks Saturday at Kroger Field.