SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Nearly three years before most of the country learned the extent of Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley's talents, Glenn Davis got a firsthand look -- on a basketball court.
"The first time we had a workout in the spring [of 2008], we let the team play about a 10-minute pickup game," said the coach of Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. "The first rebound of the first play, this 6-foot-3, 315-pound guy went up, got the rebound, and dunked on the way back down. Not many defensive linemen can do that."
Not many defensive linemen can do what the recent Lombardi Award honoree did on the football field this season, either. After collecting just 1.5 sacks last season as a second-stringer, Fairley, now 6-5 and 298 pounds, notched a staggering 21 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries this year. It's no coincidence that Auburn improved from 78th to 10th nationally against the run (which includes lost yards on sacks) with Fairley anchoring the line.
While Monday's BCS National Championship Game will be determined in large part by whether Oregon can get a handle on Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, the Ducks' offensive line faces an equally daunting task in preventing Fairley from manhandling quarterback Darron Thomas the way he has so many others this season.
"I was coaching at Arizona State [in the early 2000s] when we had Terrell Suggs and we played against Oregon with Haloti Ngata," said Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. "[Fairley] is a combination of those guys. He makes the freak show plays that [show up] on highlight films."
Like Newton, Fairley arrived at Auburn after a stint at junior college. Then-Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp steered the Mobile, Ala., native to Davis after he failed to qualify out of high school in 2007. They even requested Davis redshirt Fairley his first year to preserve three years of NCAA eligibility.
Unlike Newton, who was considered the top juco recruit in the country last winter, Fairley was a late bloomer. Rated a three-star prospect when he re-signed with Auburn in 2009, Fairley was productive but not dominant in his one season at Copiah-Lincoln, notching seven sacks and nine tackles for loss.
"I had the good fortune of coaching [retired Seahawks standout] Walter Jones, the best left tackle that ever played," said Davis of his time at Holmes (Miss.) Community College. "Athletically, Nick was farther along than him at that same [age]. Sometimes it just takes longer for a player to mature."
After Fairley's modest debut season for the Tigers, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker -- himself a former Lombardi and Outland Trophy winner in 1988 -- began riding the rising junior about fulfilling his potential. The two have developed an extremely close relationship.
"Coach Rocker is a great mentor," said Fairley. "We had a talk over the summer. He said we need you to become one of those big-time guys. He wanted me to work on consistency throughout the spring and summer."
Fairley's emergence was a boon for Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose underwhelming secondary is vulnerable to big plays if the Tigers don't get pressure. And their stingy run defense often forces opponents to rely heavily on the pass.
"That's a big deal if you can pressure with four guys and not have to add more guys behind them," said Roof. "Nick hasn't played a lot of football He's very young in the game still. He's come so far, and there's so much more left for him."
Fairley's delayed development wasn't entirely surprising considering he held out hope for a basketball career late into his time at powerhouse Williamson High. He'd played the sport longer than he had football, which he first tried in the seventh grade because, "I figured I had a big frame."
"In high school, I had to make a decision: basketball or football," said the perennially happy-go-lucky junior. "One thing is, I love to hit people. That's why I went to football."
Many question whether Fairley takes his penchant for hitting too far. Television cameras have caught him on more than one occasion driving quarterbacks into the ground. In a Nov. 13 win over Georgia, he was flagged for driving his helmet into quarterback Aaron Murray's back after Murray had released the ball. Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, LSU's Jarrett Lee and Murray all left games with injuries after being hit by Fairley. LSU fans also vividly remember Fairley body-slamming Jordan Jefferson to the turf.
Does that make Fairley a dirty player? His next potential victim thinks so.
"Oh yeah, we've seen he's got a lot of dirty plays, throwing people around after the play and things like that," Oregon's Thomas said Thursday.
Not surprisingly, Fairley's coaches and teammates universally defend him, saying he's a physical player whose unusual speed often produces big hits. Asked about his reputation multiple times Thursday, Fairley seemed mostly ambivalent.
"l just try to go out there and make plays for my team," he said. "If it is me playing dirty, if that's what they call it, that's what it is." Asked if it's difficult to back off just as a quarterback releases the ball, Fairley said: "It's instinct. Really, you've just got to hit him. You are going to get flagged or you are not."
One thing's for certain: Monday night's Big Ten officiating crew will be watching Fairley closely. That league is known for being particularly strict about late hits, but Fairley can still have plenty of impact during the game.
Because Oregon's so-called blur offense is so precision-based, Fairley has the potential to disrupt the timing of Thomas, LaMichael James and Co. Therefore, the most important players on the Ducks' offense Monday night may be interior linemen Jordan Holmes, Carson York and C.E. Kaiser. They've faced and contained elite defensive tackles before, most notably Oregon State's Stephen Paea, but concede that Fairley presents their toughest challenge to date.
"He is a very complete player and we will definitely have our hands full," said Holmes.
If Oregon does slow Fairley, Thomas and his receivers could make it a long night for Auburn's 106th-ranked pass defense.
For his part, Fairley seems to be enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Shortly before the team departed for Arizona, Fairley joined Twitter (location: "In the backfield") and seemingly hasn't stopped tweeting since. Over a two-hour span Thursday afternoon,
At one point, he also appeared to respond to Thomas' "dirty" assertion.
"Why [are] people tweeting me telling me about what someone was quoted saying about me?" Fairley said. "He has the freedom of speech. And he used it."
How very diplomatic. Here's guessing he'll respond more viciously on the field Monday night.