AUBURN, Ala. -- An emotional Nick Fairley paused in front of cameras at Williamson High School in Mobile on Friday, but he eventually got the words out: He’s turning pro.
A day after quarterback Cam Newton decided to forgo his senior season and submit his name for April’s NFL draft, Fairley, a consensus All-American who won the Lombardi Award, followed suit.
“I was just thinking on the season, finishing undefeated, won the national championship, won the SEC, won the Lombardi,” Fairley said, “I was thinking, what more could I accomplish going back for my senior year?”
The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Fairley figures to strike it rich in a few months, with the potential to be the No. 1 pick.
Scouts Inc. ranks the defensive tackle, who will turn 23 on Jan. 23, as the No. 2 overall draft eligible player. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have him going No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers.
Fairley said he doesn’t care where he gets drafted, except for one factor.
“It doesn’t matter -- as long as it’s not cold,” he said.
After transferring to Auburn from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in 2009, Fairley had mostly a reserve role his first year with the Tigers, finishing with 28 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss. But he thrived this season, emerging as an inside force. He finished with 60 tackles, a school-record 24 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks, leading the SEC in the latter two categories.
“Nick emerged into a very dominant player this season and was a key factor for the success of our championship run,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said in a news release. “His ability to control the line of scrimmage was truly amazing.
“We know that Nick loves Auburn, but this decision is in the best interest of him and his family. We wish him well as he takes the next step in his football career and life.”
Fairley had five tackles, three tackles for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble in Auburn’s 22-19 BCS title game victory Monday night against Oregon, earning the game’s defensive MVP award.
“Fairley’s utterly dominant performance against Oregon was right up there with the recent performance of Ndamukong Suh against Texas in last year’s Big 12 title tilt,” Kiper wrote.
Fairley said there wasn’t a moment when he came to a decision, saying it was a long process. He consulted with Chizik and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, in addition to his family, which was there by his side Friday.
“I’d like to thank my family that’s up here today for sticking behind me,” he said. “Coming out of here in ’07, having to go to JUCO, when things didn’t work out good for me, they had my back. They were always there.”
Fairley made his announcement at his high school, Williamson, which has produced NFL talents Tee Martin, Jamarcus Russell and Antonio Coleman, a former Auburn standout.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Williamson coach Bobby Parrish said.
Fairley’s departure leaves Auburn thin at defensive tackle. The Tigers also lose seniors Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc.
Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter, two true freshmen this season, are next on the depth chart.