For weeks, Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman told anyone who would listen that after he got the restrictive cast off his right wrist, it was on.
“A lot of the guys on the team probably thought I was playing,” he said.
Coleman wasn’t lying. The defensive end turned in the kind of second half of the season he envisioned when he returned to the Plains for his senior year.
In the Tigers’ final five games, Coleman had 25 1/2 tackles, six sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for a loss, cementing his place on the All-SEC first team after finishing the season atop the league leaderboard in sacks (nine) and tackles for a loss (15 1/2).
“If I hadn’t had that cast, it probably wouldn’t have been a foot race for who had the most sacks,” he said.
Still, Coleman’s season wasn’t without its bumps. The storybook ending seemed easy to write: senior leader postpones NFL riches to help return his school to prominence.
Things started out fine, but Coleman partially tore a tendon in his right wrist early in the season. It wasn’t necessarily painful but was slow to heal. Worst of all, the cast he wore limited his hand movement and prevented him from using his full repertoire of pass-rushing moves.
His numbers suffered, and his frustration level rose. He didn’t register any tackles against Tennessee and Arkansas and was mostly invisible against Kentucky. Auburn lost two out of three during that stretch.
He had a much-publicized meeting with head coach Gene Chizik, asking how he could better contribute and help the team.
“I know he’s a fifth-year senior, but I still feel like I watched him grow up a lot this year,” Chizik said. “I watched him have to, maybe for the first time in his career, play through some adversity and some challenges with injuries. I watched a guy who felt very limited with what he could do to help this football team win. I know he felt that way yet still fought through it and was a great leader for us. He was a great spokesman for us. He kept fighting.”
Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who formed a quick bond with Coleman last spring, saw the frustration up close.
“It was every day, the cast and this,” Rocker said. “I said, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s to protect you, and that’s all.’ It definitely hindered him in pass-rush ability. There was a bit of frustration on the practice field and in the game, but we got through it.”
Coleman wore a less restrictive cast to allow him to move his thumb, starting with the LSU game. As Rocker described it, “Boom! Here we go.”
The senior was in on at least one sack in each of the final five games, shedding the cast against Georgia and Alabama. He turned in perhaps his finest performance against Mississippi: four tackles for a loss, two sacks, four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and a blocked kick in the Tigers’ 33-20 victory.
Coleman was named Auburn’s co-Defensive Player of the Year along with linebacker Craig Stevens, justifying his decision to come back.
“I know I got out there, laid it on the line and I had fun. I enjoyed every minute of it,” Coleman said. “This was the best year I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Coleman will find out in the next few months whether the decision to come back will pay off in the NFL draft.
“He gambled. He rolled the dice on it,” Chizik said. “I think it’s really going to pay off for him because I think it’s going to be a great situation.
“The fact that he came back is a huge statement. I appreciate it very much as the head coach. I know all the Auburn people appreciate it, too.”