BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – The numbers 3 and 4 changed the course of Gabe Wright’s college football career.
Because Auburn reversed those numbers – in your traditional 4-3 base defense – Wright chose the Tigers. As a Carver (Ga.) standout in the trenches, Wright didn’t feel he was specifically built to handle nose tackle duties in his home state Georgia’s 3-4 modern scheme.
Halfway through his stay in the Loveliest Village, Wright didn’t mind pondering (only for a brief few seconds) what could have been. His sophomore year of high school, he very nearly committed to Georgia to play for defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who’d been whipping the Bulldogs in shape for over a decade.
Life has a way of sorting itself out.
“Coach Garner let us know there was no place he would have left Georgia for, except Auburn. He’s an Auburn man,” Wright said. “We’ve got one of the best coaches in college football.”
Wright’s proud to say he’s only played for an “Auburn man” – Garner’s predecessor of two years, Mike Pelton, was also a former Tigers defensive lineman.
There was a fine relationship between Garner and Wright during the recruiting process; no surprise, considering Garner’s made a living off of mining the best pass-rushing, run-stuffing talent the state of Georgia has to offer.
But now the prospect-recruiter connection has, three years later, evolved to player-coach, and there’s a fine line between the two.
“The guy that recruits you and the guy that coaches is a little bit different guy. And that’s the way it’s got to be,” said Garner, who officially returned to Auburn on Dec. 21 after spending 15 years with Georgia. “(They) probably didn’t know how to take me at first, but you spend a little quality time with them.”
That quality time is spent on practice fields, hearing Garner’s constant barking ring through their ears, which Wright and his mates did for 15 practices this spring. A different view than when Garner’s in living rooms, convincing recruits and their loved ones to play for him.
“Yeah, I’m demanding, but I love them, and I care about them, and I want them to know that,” Garner said. “But at the same time, loving them, to me, is not letting them get away with stuff. Loving them is holding them accountable, being demanding. It’s just like raising a child. You love your child, you discipline them.”
Wright remembering feeling close to Garner and his wife, Kim, who have five daughters but no sons of their own.
“Coach Garner, him and his wife have always been good to me and my family,” Wright said. “He was always polite, up-front. The thing I liked about him the most, it wasn’t always happy-happy. He told me the real side of recruiting.”
Of course, once Garner takes his whistle and Wright dons his pads, it’s even more of the tough love.
“He’s probably the most intense guy … high-level, energy guy. It fits this team well,” Wright said. “I think this team needs that, this team likes that. I want a guy to be on me all the time.”
As far as Wright’s place on the defensive line, he’s currently listed along with Jeffrey Whitaker as the first-unit tackles. Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley expect to play plenty, and then there’s blue-chip commit Montravius Adams arriving this summer.
“Gabe would probably say this all the time: I’ve got to change his mindset,” Garner said. “You know, mentally he’s a white-collar guy, but playing defensive tackle in the SEC, you’ve got to be a blue-collar guy. So it’s a little bit nastier than it can be at end. He wants to be out there with the white collar on the end, but that’s not where he is, and that’s not what he does.”