Monday, July 14, 2014

The Wright Time

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It was a strange and ballsy thing to do at the time. Nick Fairley was the newly christened Lombardi award winner and Auburn had won the National Championship only 2 weeks before, and Gabe Wright announced his intentions to play at Auburn.

It was great news to hear, since he was a 4-Star player, one of the top 150 high school players in the nation. He was a local kid from Columbus and coaches were high on him, and that meant something coming from coaches like Auburn great Tracey Rocker. And, as he donned an Auburn hat confirming his decision to play for the Tigers, the internet world was buzzing, but not because of where he decided to play, but because of what was on the back of the Auburn hat.
There were only a handful of ways to think, as a Auburn fan. Myself, I was awestruck at this incredulous display that this high school kid had just put on. Nick Fairley had become a generational player in only 14 games in an Auburn jersey. While Cam Newton would be credited with much of the National Championship, it was Fairley who provided nearly all of the high profile plays on a much maligned defense. Fairley, a national sensation because of his high motor and sometimes questionable play, had become an Auburn hero in his short time before becoming a top pick to the Detroit Lions.

I was a little embarrassed, to be honest. Not for myself, but for this kid. What a statement. The only thing that could have been any more outlandish would have been a kid like Kiehl Frazier to proclaim himself the next Cam Newton. I had no doubt this kid was a terrific athlete and I had even fewer doubts that he would make in impact in the Blue and Orange. But to label yourself as the next up-and-coming superstar on the defensive line at Auburn, who has produced some terrific NFL talent, was ludicrous. I figured he would be a good player, but one who would never amount to much. Especially considering  that this was the typical attitude that fans had begun to see running rampant through high school students. With recruiting becoming and evolving as it had in the last 10 years, far too many players were hyped up and fed lines proclaiming them the next big thing, which was detrimental to their development as players. Not only did it give them unrealistic expectations of themselves, what the game demanded, but just what being a student athlete would really demand. And here he was with this hat and even donning the #90!

The 2011 season rolled around and Gabe made good on some of his decree. He made the grades and the cut,  starting as a Freshman, something Fairley didn't do (at Auburn). He went on to play in all 13 games, record forced fumbles, tackles for losses, and ended the year with a sack against Virginia. An impressive start to a career!

After making an impact as a true freshman, his 2012 season was just like every one else on the squad: one he probably wishes he could forget. He started the last 5 games of the season, but had no sacks and only a few tackles for loss. As a fan who follows recruiting, tries to talk to all the players during Fan Day or A-Day, the results on the score board were certainly surprising, but so was the lack of #90's playing time. Even though I had certainly expected Wright to be cocky after his signing day drama, each time I met him, I never really got that impression. So, to see a kid who showed so much potential as a true freshman, who seemed to have his head on straight, to be limited in his production......was strange.

But then again, everything about 2012 was strange, wasn't it? At first it was easy to blame the players. About midseason, we started questioning the coaches. By the end of the season, we wondered how a coaching staff could possibly make ALL the wrong decisions.

Obviously I wasn't there. I haven't been to the first practice or meeting, so I can't judge WHY Gabe wasn't a bigger contributor. But he wasn't. And that was a surprise.

2013 started pretty slowly for Gabe. He didn't start the first few games, though he was in the rotation and making plays. With 2012 in the rear-view and the impressive haul of freshman talent, Gabe's disappearance as a junior might have been easy to dismiss. Adams and Co got off to a terrific start, as it were, and #90 might have fallen off the radar with some fans. But almost as soon as I noticed that he hadn't been starting, he exploded in the last 10 games. A player that had 5 career tackles-for-loss and two sacks had that same production in one game against Ole Miss. Down the stretch, Gabe's blue chip first move and speed started showing, and in spades. He ended the regular season with a sack against AJ McCarron in the Iron Bowl, which I thought was a pivotal play in the most important game played in our generation.

Those numbers aren't huge, by any stretch. Even in the comparison to Nick Fairley's one year at Auburn, Gabe's don't jump out and WOW you. But, it's easy to forget that the Auburn defensive front, even young in 2013, is one of the deepest and most talented in the country. It's easy to point at the 3.5 sacks and raise an eyebrow at why I am showcasing Gabe Wright with those "paltry" numbers. And while I would argue that he seemed unblockable at times, that his first step is unreal, and that he did well considering playing in a rotation that Fairley didn't have, I am not showcasing him for his past play on the field.

Gabe doesn't know me from anyone, but he is one of my favorite players because of his attitude off the field. He has one of the best and most genuine smiles I have ever seen, and he is always happy to show it off. Though he has shaken my hand at several A-Days and Fan Days, there is one event that comes to mind that make him one of my favorites.

After the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, we were celebrating at our tailgate on the corner of Plainsman Park and S Donahue. The music was loud and we were literally dancing in the streets. After an hour or so, after all the interviews are done, the players walk back to the Athletic Department. While I have little doubt that all of them are physically and emotionally drained, almost all of them would wave to us as we called their names and screamed as obsessed fans do. Some of them would exchange high-fives with us. In some cases, the players would get by us before we could get their attention. We didn't expect them to turn around. They have lives of their own, family and friends who are waiting. I don't expect special treatment from these guys, since we are "just fans."

With a towel over his head, the monstrous his flip flops....managed to get by me. Keep in mind that these guys don't have huge signs telling you who they are. You just have to recognize them. And, I recognized the player who once said "Nick Who." In a half-hearted attempt, I yelled at Gabe. I didn't expect him to hear. At most, I expected him to flash that famous smile and wave. But, turn around, he did. To my surprise, he turned around and looked at me. An impressive thing, really, since I am 5'3" and had to stand on the retaining wall for him to see. I yelled "Great game! War Eagle!" and he did something that I didn't expect. He turned around, walked back to me, shot me that smile, and gave me a high-five and "War Eagle."

A small gesture, I know. If he were to read this, he would probably laugh that a NASA engineer cared that much about a few words and a high-five, but it did.

Though I have that little story, which makes him one of my favorites, I am not writing about his simply because he once gave me 3 seconds of his life, or that he always Tweets me. No, I really think this is the Wright Time. He is on many preseason picks for annual award watch lists. Magazines and prognosticators like Phil Steel  have him penciled in for a 3.5 sack performance on his way to all-SEC honors. For example, Athlon and Phil Steele have him as a all-SEC second team while Lindy's has him as a 3rd team. He is on the Outland and Nagurski Trophy watch list. And while these magazines and such as usually the authorities on the subject, the fact is, they don't spend THAT much team breaking down each player.

But, I believe he belongs on those lists and I believe he will do a sight better than 2nd Team. I started believing in the Spring as I read articles and posts during the spring. #90 was emerging as a leader on this defense. His work ethic was inspiring, and in proof, a picture emerged of Gabe working out during Auburn's pro day, showing off a much improved physique.

Auburn fans began digging into this, finding out that Gabe's offseason workouts had caused him to shed pounds of fat and add pounds of muscle. The speed and quickness was up too, which was impressive. Most importantly, he was embracing his role as Leader. To confirm his attitude, an article showed up on showcasing his desire to be a leader and his work ethic. The punctuation comes this week as Gabe was brought to SEC Media Days as one of the 3 (and the only defender) Auburn players. I wasn't surprised in the slightest to hear that they well-spoken mountain of a man would represent Auburn.

Gabe has the opportunity to become a leader on a defense that MUST improve (and is expected to) in 2014 if the Tigers are to do something they haven't done since Dye.....back-to-back 10 win seasons and SEC Champs. Though the defensive front is deep with NFL-type talent, it is Gabe Wright that will emerge as the leader, both in stats and in stature. An improved secondary could provide him the precious seconds to make his senior season stats explode, possibly sending him to the NFL. Personally, I expect 7 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. And while numbers are just that, #90 will have a high one on my list of favorite players. Expect 2014 to be the Wright Time. Watch Gabe Wright make good on a promise from 2010 and become a force in the Auburn front 4. 

Read more about Gabe on his Auburn Profile!