When Kentucky coach Joker Phillips watched footage of Auburn earlier this week, he huffed what probably everybody in this league has been saying.
Where did this Nick Fairley guy come from?
The Tigers’ junior defensive tackle has been a terror through five games and is leading the SEC in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (11.5). He’s that dominant, playmaking presence in the middle of the defensive line Auburn didn’t have a year ago.
Fairley was around last season, but he started in just two games and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss.
He’s clearly taken his game to another level this season, and Auburn coach Gene Chizik isn’t altogether surprised.
“I felt like there was a lot of potential there, and I felt like if he continued to kind of grow and understand the college game and the work needed to put behind it to be a good player that he certainly had a chance to develop as one of our better guys,” Chizik said. “I think slowly, but surely, he’s moving in that direction.
“He’s a very talented young man and just starting to kind of understand football and the things it takes to become a different player than everybody else, and I think he’s seeing that.”
Phillips said Fairley looks a lot like his defensive line coach, Tracy Rocker, back when Rocker was setting the standard for interior defensive line play in this league. Rocker won both the Outland and Lombardi trophies in 1988 while carving out a Hall of Fame career at Auburn.
“He’s been as disruptive as anybody in this league,” said Phillips, whose Wildcats have to figure out a way to block Fairley this Saturday.
“I’ve been in this league a long time, and he looks like some of the old Auburn defensive players, similar to his coach (Rocker). He’s playing with a big-time motor and with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement.”
For the record, Rocker says Fairley is “a hell of a lot better” than he was and much more athletic.
But Fairley credits Rocker for making him a more fundamentally sound player.
“I’m just doing everything he tells me and applying his knowledge,” Fairley said. “Everything that comes out of his mouth, I take to heart. He knows the game, and he played the game as well as anybody.
“A lot of what he’s taught me has to do with using my hands, having good footwork and playing with a low base. It’s made me a lot more consistent player.”
Not only that, but it’s made the 6-5, 298-pound Fairley the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year to this point.
“I think our front four as a unit has been playing great,” said Fairley, who was recruited by some teams as an offensive lineman out of high school before going to junior college for two years. “Antoine (Carter) has been getting a lot of pressure at end, and that just allows me to make plays.”
Fairley figures he will face a lot more double teams the rest of the way.
“That’s OK, because somebody else on our defense will be free then,” Fairley said. “That’s the difference in this defense. We’re playing with a swag and playing together.
“We’re celebrating each other’s success.”