BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – Seated at three different roundtables spread out in the Rane Room of Auburn’s athletic complex were three top returning defensive linemen, and the conversations were congenial, not repugnant.
Gabe Wright, Dee Ford and Jeffrey Whitaker were being who they are March 20, a few good men shooting the breeze and talking some football.
Of course, they were wearing street clothes, not pads. They were facing reporters, not 300-pound offensive linemen or a blocking dummy.
Nice guys finish last in the trenches, which they completely understand is a mindset that must change once they step on that field – any field, whether it’s the practice turf in spring scrimmages or Jordan-Hare Stadium in November against top-ranked SEC opposition.
“You don’t want a nice guy on the offensive or defensive line at all,” Wright said. “And I believe we don’t have any nice coaches.”
“Off the field, they’re great men. Let me rephrase that: you want a guy who will praise you, but you don’t want somebody who babies you, because that’s definitely not going to be good for you in the long run.”
Wright, a Carver High School grad who started the final six games of 2012, has a friendly demeanor in person. Now entering his junior year under his third defensive line coach (Rodney Garner) in three seasons, Wright understands what it takes to mentally and physically combat SEC offensive linemen.
“Without a doubt, there’s a difference between being mean on the field and being who you are off the field,” Wright said. “Nick Fairley could have been one of the meanest players in college football off the field, but I’m told he was one of the coolest guys off the field.
“That’s something I’ve got to learn how to do – flip that switch. I’m not nice on the field, but I’ve still got to learn how to get meaner. Coach Garner can definitely bring that out of me.”
Overall, Wright was disgusted with his own production last year and knows many of his linemates feel similarly.
“I’m not a statistic guy, but I feel like I did little to none to help my team,” Wright said. “I hold myself to a high standard. Angelo (Blackson’s) my roommate, and I know we talk about it all the time – we literally did little to nothing in terms of what we know we can do. If you look at drills, we’re the most athletic defensive line by far that I’ve seen.
“I think that’s how a lot of guys feel. It’s time to produce. Guys signed here to do that.”
Ford’s six sacks led the team last year despite missing time due to a back injury, aided by the attention paid to his bookend Corey Lemonier. With Lemonier foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, Ford is taking on greater leadership roles – both in the locker room and on the field.
“I’m going to be a game-changer,” Ford said. “Doing my assignment, being accountable, having that trust from the entire defense I’m going to do my job every play.”
Ford added he’s got trust in other experienced ends like Nosa Eguae, part of a large group that will be bolstered by the arrival of top recruit Carl Lawson.
“We have a great opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong, because nobody believed in the d-line last year,” Ford said. “Don’t see it being any different this year. We have a lot of things to prove.”
Added Whitaker: “I embrace the competition. It’s a great time: Auburn’s always been like this on the D-line. It’s getting back to, the backups are just as good as the starters.”
Wright agrees it’s time for the defensive line to take charge, and flip that switch – not just with coaxing from Garner, but from themselves.
“As far as talent, we’re stacked,” Wright said. “There’s no better secret to success than competition within a program, I can guarantee that. But there’s a difference between talent and potential. Everybody in the d-line can have potential, but it’s up to us to bring it out. I’m going to harp on that to myself, and to the d-ends and the rest of the d-tackles.
“I feel like Coach Garner will get that out of us, and the guys will do less thinking during the games and just play.”