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Nick Fairley is no longer Auburn's dirty little secret

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Tigers' ferocious defensive tackle is an overnight success — anonymous as a sophomore, Lombardi Award winner as a junior. Opponents might call him a dirty player, but he's also scary good, with 10.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss this season.

January 07, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley gets pumped up before the SEC championship game against South Carolina.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley gets pumped up before the SEC championship… (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images )

Reporting from Scottsdale, Ariz. — The film from the Nov. 13 Georgia game alone could make an opposing quarterback call in sick against Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Fairley flagrantly speared poor Aaron Murray in the back, once ground his facemask into the quarterback's chin and then, as a capper, charged late with his helmet into Murray's kneecap.

Fairley drew blood and nearly caused a riot.

The only thing he didn't do was get suspended.

"He's a monster," Oregon tailback Kenjon Barner acknowledged Friday, three days before Oregon faces Auburn for the Bowl Championship Series title.

Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was quick to pick up on the horror theme, saying that watching five Fairley plays is like "five very scary movies."

Fairley, a 6-foot-5, 298-pound, cat-quick junior, has knocked three quarterbacks out of games this season. He has toyed with opposing lineman, infuriated fans and made referees keep two eyes on the game and one hand, always, on their penalty flags.

Auburn coaches, players and followers insist that calling Fairley "dirty" is a bad rap, yet a search engine request Friday using his name produced the tags "dirty," "dirty player," "cheap shot" and "late hit."

There was not one link to "choir boy."

Maybe a hearing aid would stop Fairley from playing through the sound of the whistle.

Fairley says it's only human nature for a man of his stature to want to face plant a quarterback when he gets so close every play.

"It is the instinct," he said. "Really, you just got to hit him. You are going to get flagged or you are not."

Fairley doesn't consider himself a dirty player.

"I'm a hard worker," he said. "I'm ready to go. The motor is always running."

Maybe it's good news that Oregon's star back, LaMichael James, measures only 5-9 and 185.

"It is very hard to hit a small [target]," Fairley said. "They are low to the ground."

Fairley hit the ground snorting this season after showing few signs as a sophomore he would one day become a Lombardi Award winner.

Fairley registered only 11/2 sacks in 2009 but became Mt. Vesuvius in 2010 with 21 tackles for loss and 101/2 sacks.

For Oregon's offensive line, Fairley is the focal point. His disruptive force up front could very well mess up the timing of the Ducks' breakneck offense.

"Hopefully we can get him tired," said James, Oregon's All-American tailback. "I don't know how many teams he has played with our tempo yet."

Oregon probably will try to stretch the field and make Fairley chase the Ducks from sideline to sideline. They hope oxygen is the only thing Fairley is grabbing for in the end.

A few teams this season have faked injuries in an attempt to slow Oregon's pace. Fairley, though, said his defense isn't going to play any games.

"That's one thing we are not going to do," he said. "We are not going to fake any injuries. We will play our game."

Fairley modeled his game after former Louisiana State star Glenn Dorsey.

Helfrich said Fairley reminds him of a power-quickness combination of former Oregon star Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, the ex-Arizona State sack master.

Oregon most recently has faced a future NFL defensive tackle in Oregon State's Stephen Paea.

"Nick's got a little more wiggle in him," Oregon center Jordan Holmes said.

Auburn went from ordinary to 13-0 largely because of otherworldly contributions by two junior college transfers — Cam Newton and Fairley.

No one saw Fairley making this kind of quick-twitch leap. His best sport growing up was basketball, and he didn't take up pigskin until seventh grade.

Fairley took the roundabout route from Mobile, Ala., spending an academic/football development year (2008) at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi.

"I always tell folks that junior college was an eye opener," Fairley said. ". . .Things weren't like they are here. We took buses everywhere."

Tracy Rocker, Auburn's defensive line coach, gets the Tiger's share of credit for fine-tuning Fairley's considerable skill set.

"Coach Rocker flipped a switch to turn on," Fairley said.

Oregon has only a few hours left to figure out how to switch Fairley off.

While some question Fairley's tactics, no one denies he is a one-man game wrecker.

"That guy's a beast," said Barner, Oregon's "other" tailback. "I've seen him on film dominate offensive blocks and make plays he shouldn't have made."

As for Fairley's, um, aggressive nature?

"That's football," Barner said. "Playing on the defensive side of the ball, you have to have that mind-set. When you hit somebody, you want to punish them. Next time they get the ball you want to make them think, Where is this guy?"

Oregon will be tracking No. 90 all night.

So will the game officials, television cameras and rival websites.

"Is Nick Fairley a dirty player?" said Auburn center Ryan Pugh, repeating a question that's been asked a lot. "He plays hard. Are some of those plays debatable? Sure."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes

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