AUBURN, Ala. — LSU hustled to the line for a quick third-down snap late in the fourth quarter, catching the late-to-substitute Auburn defense off guard.
Nick Fairley was the only defensive lineman able to line up properly and get a decent jump off the snap.
It still proved to be a mismatch.
Fairley sprang out of his stance, split two defenders and bear hugged quarterback Jordan Jefferson, lifting him up briefly before slamming him to the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf for a sack.
Never miss a local story.
“That’s normal for Nick,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “Nothing out of the blue.”
The rest of the SEC knows all too well. Cam Newton might be in line for college football’s biggest honor, the Heisman Trophy, but Fairley, who has blossomed in his second year since transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Junior College, could be in line for some national awards as well.
The junior had six tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks against LSU to be named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week, the fourth time this year he’s won a weekly league award.
Fairley’s season stats are just as impressive. His 17 tackles for a loss lead the league and are second nationally. His 7.5 sacks are second in the SEC.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “Anybody that watched the game yesterday would have a hard time denying the fact that he’s one of the best defensive linemen in the country.”
Consistency problems relegated Fairley to a bit player last year, when he finished with 28 tackles and 3.5 TFLs.
Although Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof don’t think he’s quite put it all together — perhaps another slow-playing gambit like the staff did with Newton last spring — Fairley has all the tools you’d look for in a defensive tackle.
He is powerful, at 6-foot-5, 298 pounds, but shows a quickness usually reserved for undersized tackles.
“He’s athletic. He’s not a plodder,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “There have been a lot of great linemen that just take up gaps and let your linebackers make plays. This guy is different.”
He is like his position coach, Tracy Rocker, an Auburn legend and college football Hall of Famer who won the Outland and Lombardi awards in 1988, a double dip Fairley would love to duplicate.
Rocker, a straight talker, dishes out a dose of reality to Fairley on a regular basis.
“My deal is: Can you do it again?” Rocker said.
“That’s the hardest thing about playing on the d-line. And that’s what I’m telling him, because people are going to start sliding protection to you, they’re going to start doubling you more, they’re going to start chip blocks.
“Now, can you go out there every day and still defeat those blocks and make plays and play within the structure of the defense? I’ve been in situations where guys have gotten frustrated and all of a sudden they start doing their own thing and here we go. That ain’t what we want.”
Fairley hasn’t free-lanced lately. He’s just lived in the opposing backfield, knocking out quarterbacks in consecutive weeks.
Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett left with a concussion after a Fairley hit and LSU’s Jarrett Lee left briefly with a wrist injury.
“Coach Rocker always asks me, ‘Why are you always trying to slam the quarterback?’” Fairley said. “I’m like, when you’re in a fight, you slam to take the heart out of (them).”
“Eventually that starts to build up in their minds,” Chizik said.
That appeared to be the case late in the game, when Lee, instead of making a move for the first-down marker, was tackled on his way out of bounds on a crucial fourth-down play.
“He got tired of it,” Fairley said. “He was like, ‘Let’s get out of here. Let’s go home.’ That’s the kind of mindset it looked like he had.”
Hardly an introvert — he’s always the most animated of the players dancing to T-Will’s “Tiger Walk” during warmups — Fairley isn’t shy about dispensing a little trash talk.
Said left guard Mike Berry: “He’s got the right to.”
Notes: Newton was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after running for a career-high 217 yards against LSU. It was the fourth time he’s earned the honor this year. … Newton was also named one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award, given annually to the nation’s best quarterback.