Auburn’s Nick Fairley and Alabama’s Marcell Dareus are agile, physical defensive linemen who can take over big games _ attributes that make NFL types salivate and quarterbacks cringe.
The two 300-pound juniors are both widely projected as top 10 NFL draft picks.
No player not named Cam Newton has played a bigger role in the second-ranked Tigers’ season going into Friday’s Iron Bowl than Fairley, who has been lauded by his own fans and labeled a dirty player by others.
“Obviously, he’s a terror for quarterbacks, but I’ve got a lot of faith in my offensive line to keep me protected and keep him off my back,” said Greg McElroy, No. 9 Alabama’s quarterback and Fairley’s next target.
Dareus hasn’t had the kind of year many projected after his star turn in last season’s national championship game, but the defensive end is formidable enough to make the Tigers wary.
They watched the title game against Texas, too, after all.
“He really turned it on in that game, especially when they needed something big,” Auburn guard Mike Berry said. “He’s one of those people you just have to stop him early. You can’t let him get his motor going.”
Fairley hasn’t slowed down since opening day.
He has been one of the nation’s most dominant, disruptive defensive tackles _ and something of a polarizing figure in the Southeastern Conference. He’s one of three finalists for the Bednarik Award given to the nation’s top defensive player.
Fairley has knocked three quarterbacks out of games at least temporarily _ Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. The biggest outcry came after the Georgia game when Fairley was called for a late hit after appearing to come in helmet-first (the SEC did not suspend him for spearing) and later sent Murray to the sideline with a knee injury after coming in low on a clean play that helped ignite a scuffle.
Fellow linemen Mike Blanc and Michael Goggans have to sit out the first half of the Iron Bowl for throwing punches.
“I would think some of the contact’s a little unnecessary, but it’s part of the game,” McElroy said. “It’s part of it. The New York Giants knocked out a lot of quarterbacks this year, too, including (Tony) Romo, and Jon Kitna went and took them to school last week.”
Fairley has not been made available to the media since the Georgia game. Coach Gene Chizik said those decisions are made at his discretion and if a player isn’t allowed to talk “then I can assure you there’s usually a really good reason.”
Fairley has been much harder to silence on the field. He leads the SEC and is tied for eighth nationally with 18 tackles for loss, two shy of the Auburn record shared by Gary Walker (1994) and Terry Solomon (1995).
He had 2 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss against No. 6 LSU, and posted a fumble recovery and an interception against Mississippi State _ both one-score games.
“He’s probably as good an interior lineman, in terms of being a playmaker, as any guy we’ve played all year and probably in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Chizik, Stevens and other Auburn defenders have disputed the dirty player label.
“He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played down there on the defensive line,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “It gets dirty down there. That’s how it is.”
Dareus has been trying to regain his championship form with the Tide.
He missed the first two games with an NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits from an agent and hasn’t approached the dominance from that Texas game. He earned defensive MVP honors after knocking quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game and returning an interception for a touchdown.
Dareus thrived in a role as a pass rusher who mostly came off the bench last season and faced less attention from opposing teams playing alongside All-American Terrence Cody. He has 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries and eight tackles for loss for a defense that has an SEC-low 18 sacks.
“It’s just been kind of crazy,” Dareus said. “I’ve had a lot of things going on this year. I had to overcome some things. I had to focus back in and just put my eyes on the prize and do the best I can.”
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower said Dareus has faced double and even triple-teams, especially on passing downs.
“A lot of people see the numbers and the stats, they don’t see what goes on,” Hightower said. “With a guy like Marcell, as dominant as he was last year, teams are more aware of that. This year, they were able to gameplan away from Marcell.”
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn agrees.
“I think he’s a big threat,” Malzahn said. “He’s a disruptor. Even if he doesn’t make the play, he disrupts so many things. If he doesn’t make the tackle, usually he’s influencing someone who does make the tackle.”
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