NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Gabe Wright knows trying to please everyone is an impossible goal.
It’s an admirable, but ultimately fruitless, endeavor. But Auburn’s junior defensive tackle is aware of how society functions. No matter how harmless an action or remark may appear, someone will take offense to it. And Wright can speak from first-hand experience.
When he inked his letter-of-intent with the Tigers in February 2011, he donned a “Nick Who?” hat. Some perceived it as a shot at Alabama coach Nick Saban. Others viewed it as a brash, unambiguous comparison to Auburn's Nick Fairley. According to Wright, it was neither.
It was simply a lighthearted attempt at lauding Fairley, the dominant defensive tackle — and the 2010 Lombardi Award winner — who wore the same jersey number Wright would soon fill.
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“Me and Nick had a personal relationship,” Wright said Saturday. “He knew I wore No. 90. He knew people would naturally make comparisons. He told me to be myself from Day 1. And that’s really all I tried to do.”
That hasn’t changed.
Wright is going to continue being himself, even if it leaves him open to criticism.
“You can praise God and people will find a way to harp on that,” he said. “No matter what you say, someone is always going to find something wrong with it. I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing and keep progressing
One of the ways that Wright has evolved is assuming the mantle of leadership that comes with being an upperclassman. Once the dreary 3-9 season in 2012 came to a close, he huddled with fellow defensive linemen Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae. Both were members of the 2010 title team. Both were used to mentoring others.
Wright wanted to know how he could do the same, especially with a highly-touted trio of freshmen defensive linemen — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — set to arrive in the fall
“Being able to see Elijah and Mon and Carl and the talent that those guys have, I see myself in them,” Wright said. “I see myself in them, the way (they were) looking for somebody. They’ve been unbelievable, being freshmen and taking it all in and still preparing like an older guy. But it definitely helps knowing that I’ve been in their shoes and put in the hard work to get where I am now.”
Where he’s at isn’t where he wants to be, though. Even if he was an All-American, Wright said he would still find aspects of his game to nitpick. But he’s not miserable, either. Across the board, his numbers have improved.
From games started (10), to tackles (20) and sacks (three), the Carver alum has set single-season highs with another game to play.
And he’s done so playing fewer snaps per game than in years past.
“It’s truly amazing,” he said. “It all goes to show to the coaching and our belief in our coaches to go out there and do those things on the field.”
Rodney Garner has noticed.
Auburn’s defensive line coach has seen Wright grow in leaps and bounds since he returned to Auburn as a part of Gus Malzahn’s staff. Not that Wright warmed up to Garner right off the bat.
No, Wright went through some growing pains first.
“The transition for Gabe Wright to me was a very difficult one for him, but I think now it’s something he truly embraces,” said Garner, known as a vocal, demanding taskmaster. “He probably thought I was crazy. But I think he’s definitely gotten better from a physicality standpoint. He’s always been a very talented kid that has a lot of athletic ability for a defensive lineman, but the physicality part of it was not something he really embraced.”
Now, Wright relishes on-field, one-on-one confrontations. If he continues to make strides in that regard, Garner said there’s no telling how good Wright can become.
Of course, that only matches the sky-high expectations the Columbus native has for himself.
“It’s never really enough,” he said. “I’ve had dreams and aspirations I’ve wanted to do before I got to Auburn, and being in the national championship, you can’t beat that. It’s OK to have (both) team goals and individual goals. There are still a lot of things I want to get done.”
Winning a BCS championship is at the top of the list. But if it doesn’t happen Monday night, Wright said it wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, he doesn’t even think it qualifies as the “biggest game” of his life. It’s not a popular opinion — actually, it runs counter to the prevailing notion of the national championship itself.
Just chalk it up as another example of Wright speaking his mind.
“It’s really important, but the game of life is 10 times bigger,” he said. “Coach Malzahn preaches that all the time. That’s just what it’s about: staying humble, staying level-headed, and knowing God gave you these talents to praise Him.”