AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright didn’t choose No. 90 as a tribute to Auburn’s Lombardi Award-winning defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the man he’d like to replace in the Tigers’ lineup.
He wore No. 90 at Carver High. Simple as that.
“I really learned over the years that the player makes the number,” the freshman said after two days of practice. “It’s just a number. It’s really up to me to make it.”
Auburn fans would love if he reproduced Fairley’s career. Wright joins fellow freshman Angelo Blackson behind projected starters Ken Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker, a pair of sophomores, in a young but talented group looking to replenish the Tigers’ depleted ranks at defensive tackle.
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The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Wright, though only a freshman, has already made an impression.
“The thing I like about Gabe is he is really, really working every day like he is going to take someone’s position,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “That appears to be to be his mindset. Every young guy out here, that’s the way every one of them needs to think.”
Wright should put an end to Columbus’ drought at Auburn. The city hasn’t had a player letter on the Plains since linebacker Antarrious Williams in 2005.
Carver, which produces loads of Division I talent, hasn’t sent anyone to Auburn in recent memory other than quarterback/safety DeRon Furr, a 2008 signee who transferred to Memphis before playing a game, reportedly after getting into a fight with teammates during an August practice.
But Wright, a four-star recruit who ESPN ranked No. 26 nationally, picked Auburn over Tennessee with dramatic flair on national TV on signing day.
Shortly after Carver teammate Isaiah Crowell held up a puppy to declare his intentions to go to Georgia, Wright took out a Tigers hat and put it on backward. The words “Nick Who?” were prominently shown, referring to Fairley, not Saban.
A Tigerette suggested it during Wright’s official visit. He cleared it with Fairley, who liked the high schooler’s boldness.
“I was still young,” Wright said. “I guess I got caught up in the moment. I decided to go all out about it. It was all fun.”
Truth be told, Wright holds Fairley in the highest regard.
“Nick Fairley was a special guy,” he said. “I can truly say if I don’t have that off and on switch, I’m going to have to learn it. He had an off and on switch that was out of this world. He is definitely one of the coolest, down-to-earth guys off the field. And on the field, when he turns it on, he’s really just a totally different person.”
Things have changed since Wright signed in February. Line coach Tracy Rocker, who recruited him, took a job with the Tennessee Titans in February, although Wright formed an instant bond with Rocker’s replacement, Mike Pelton, a former Auburn teammate of Carver coach Dell McGee in the mid-90s.
He’s toned down the bravado he showed with the signing day stunt, quietly adjusting to the college game -- “I had the ‘bubble guts’ the first day,” he said of his nerves -- hoping to get a taste of the action early on.
Columbus is never far from his mind. His mom, his family, his friends -- and a few other benefits -- are less than an hour down the road.
“It really helps,” Wright said. “I’m not going to lie: $1.50 for washing clothes is kind of a lot, so I take all my dirty clothes back home.”
Beyond that, however, everything about Auburn has reinforced his decision to come.
“It’s been great,” Wright said. “I couldn’t ask for a better coaching staff. I’ve said it time and time again: I love my defensive line. I know we’re young, but I absolutely love those guys. We’re so together. It’s fun.”