AUBURN, Ala. — No one holds Gabe Wright to a higher standard than himself.
However, it’s a benchmark that has proven to be an elusive expectation to meet. The Columbus native arrived at Auburn as one of the top defensive tackle prospects in the country in the Class of 2011. Entering last Saturday, the Carver-turned-Auburn Tiger had started 10 games and amassed 31 tackles.
Further, he had only two sacks in his collegiate career prior to kickoff against Ole Miss.
By the end of the contest, he had doubled that total.
And with it, Wright admitted, he felt like a weight had been lifted off his broad shoulders.
“I’ve been waiting, the fans have been waiting,” he said of Saturday’s outing, which included four tackles (three for loss) to go along with his personal-best two sacks. “It’s just one of those things I’m very happy finally clicked.”
As good as the performance was, he jokingly brought up that it didn’t match the sack tally some Auburn supporters were calling for prior to the game.
“Through Tiger Walk I hear crazy numbers like, ‘Gabe get three sacks,’” he said. “I just kind of laugh. I’m just proud of the work the guys put in during the week, including myself. It was good to go out there Saturday and see us show up.”
Most importantly, Gus Malzahn took special interest in Wright’s outing, noting Saturday was the junior’s “best game” since he became Auburn’s head coach.
“I don’t think it was close,” Malzahn said. “He’s doing what (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner asked. (He’s) doing a good job with the run fits up front and did a good job of the pressure when they were passing up front, too.”
No moment encapsulated Wright’s day better than his sack of Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace on the next-to-last play of the visitors’ final possession. Wright said the defense ran a stunt that “opened up perfectly through the middle."
Well-aware of the NCAA’s increased emphasis on targeting defenseless players, Wright chose to simply go right through the Rebels’ signal-caller.
“I just gave him two (hands) to the chest,” he said. “I looked on film and (freshman defensive end) Carl (Lawson) pushed the tackle so deep that Bo kind of stumbled over the tackle’s foot and it looks like he’s flying.”
So how much credit does Lawson deserve for aiding Wright’s sack?
“It was definitely 100 percent mine,” Wright said with a chuckle. “Carl doesn’t get any assist on that.”
Wright wasn’t shy to praise Malzahn and the rest of the Tigers’ coaching staff for hammering away on helmet-to-helmet hits. The team heard about it often when it reconvened for fall camp in the first week of August, but it was taken to a new level after Kris Frost was ejected in the second half of the Arkansas State game for a hit on quarterback Adam Kennedy officials deemed illegal.
While the constant reminders from the coaching staff helped, Wright said a possible ejection was the last thing on his mind the split-second before he knocked Wallace to the ground.
“I'm not going to say it's something I just thought about at the moment, but I've seen (Wallace) not see me and I didn't want to lean in,” he said. “It's just one of those things you have to be conscientious of.”
If for some reason Wright forgets, Garner will be there to remind him. The fiery defensive line coach is a harsh critic — often reinforcing his point loudly.
But even he came away pleased with the play of his unit last week, as it collected six sacks and nine and a half tackles for loss, which marked season-highs in both categories.
“It (was) the least angry Coach Garner has been on the bench,” Wright said. “When you get two sacks from a defensive lineman during a drive, there’s really not much he can say. He was real proud of us.”
Proud enough, in fact, to take to his personal Twitter account Monday to commend his players publicly.
“He’s an honest coach,” Wright said. “He’ll pat you on the back when you’re doing well. He has to be the coach when you’re doing bad. There is no doubt on my mind that he wants us to do well.”
Another, less-visible member of Auburn’s program — and a former coach, to boot — was likely similarly thrilled with Wright’s success Saturday. Dell McGee, who coached Wright during his four years at Carver, joined the Tigers’ support staff in February in an analyst role.
The two talk all the time, Wright said, and it always brightens his day to see another familiar face when he’s milling about the Auburn Athletic Complex.
“I was real into it with his son back in high school,” Wright said. “It’s awesome to see him around. I saw his wife just the other day at the grocery store. Having Coach (McGee) here, that’s just another thing for me personally.”
That aptly describes Wright’s thinking about last Saturday. He wants those games to be “just another thing” for himself and the defensive line, to become the rule, not the exception. The only way that will happen is to continue focusing on the little things, Wright said.
After that, everything else will fall into place.
“This is something that hopefully — if guys continue to buy in and don’t get complacent — that this is a level that we plan to stay at or keep excelling,” he said. “We don’t want to want to have these highs and lows.”