SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Had you polled SEC fans this time a year ago on who wore No. 90 for Auburn, there might have been a smattering of diehards to get it right.
The same goes for SEC coaches.
That’s how obscure Nick Fairley was outside the confines of the Auburn football complex.
“I knew he had it in him somewhere,” Auburn senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “He just had to turn it loose.”
And turn it loose Fairley has this season.
Rest assured the coaches in the SEC know now who wears No. 90 for the Tigers.
Everybody in college football does, particularly those on Oregon’s offense.
“We’ve had some experience playing against some very talented tackles this year, but he’ll definitely be the best,” Oregon center Jordan Holmes said.
Fairley’s transformation into college football’s most dominant interior defensive lineman has been nothing short of stunning. He only started in two games a year ago after coming over from junior college.
His athletic ability was obvious, but Fairley was raw, inconsistent and honestly just another guy in the Tigers’ defensive line rotation.
“I always knew I had talent,” said Fairley, who parlayed that talent into being named the Lombardi Award winner this season. “I just had to wait my turn to showcase it. Like I said, last year I was playing behind Jake Ricks, a senior. This year, I was able to step up and make plays for my team.”
His impact was immediate.
What Cam Newton was to Auburn offensively, Fairley was to the Tigers defensively.
In fact, with the Tigers giving up yards in chunks this season at times, Fairley might have been in his own way more valuable than Newton.
When a play had to be made on defense, Fairley was usually somewhere in the middle of it.
How many drives did he kill with one of his SEC-leading 21 tackles for loss?
How many quarterbacks did he cause to turn gun-shy after one of his controversial body-slams to the turf, one of the things that earned Fairley the rap of being a dirty player?
How many times did he flat-out save the Tigers when they were reeling defensively?
There might not have been a defensive play more important this season for Auburn than Fairley’s burst through the line to sack Alabama’s Greg McElroy with the Crimson Tide threatening to score at the end of the first half.
If Alabama punches it in there from the Auburn 8-yard line and goes into halftime with a 31-7 lead, the game is probably over.
But Fairley not only blew up the play, he stripped McElroy of the ball and recovered the fumble himself.
Alabama didn’t even scratch out a field goal, and it was almost as if Fairley had knocked the collective breath right out of the Crimson Tide.
“He’s amazingly quick,” Bynes marveled. “He played basketball in high school. For him at his size, 300 pounds, to move like he can and also be as strong as he is, that’s the kind of defensive lineman you want on your team, and I’m glad he’s on my team.”
So is Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who says much of the credit for Fairley’s development should go to Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who was a dominant defensive tackle in his own right at Auburn back in the late 1980s.
“Tracy Rocker has done a wonderful job with him,” Roof said. “But as far as expecting this (a year ago), I don’t know that we did that. There’s still so much more left out there for him that can happen Monday night. But he’s come a long, long way, and we’re really proud of him.”
There was a time back in Mobile, Ala., that Fairley thought his future might be as a basketball player. As a younger kid, he never played organized football.
“In high school, I had to make a decision – basketball or football,” he said. “One thing I love is to hit people. You know what I’m saying? That’s why I went to football.”
Hence the accusations of being a dirty player.
Fairley figures it comes with the territory.
“My motor is always running,” Fairley shrugged.
But he admitted that he’s not going to back off when he’s bearing down on a quarterback.
“It’s the instinct,” Fairley said. “Really, you just got to hit him. You’re going to get flagged or you’re not.”