SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Nick Fairley's coaches rose to his defense on Friday, insisting that Auburn's star defensive tackle is a clean player on the field and a fun-loving character off it.
A day after Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas said Fairley has made "a lot of dirty plays," coach Gene Chizik called the notion that the Lombardi Award winner is a dirty player "absurd."
"It's real simple. You have a 315-pound defensive tackle and you can't block him, sometimes he's going to be very aggressive and people are going to get hurt," Chizik said. "We don't want that. We don't want to see anybody get hurt. But when you can't block a guy that's 315 pounds, that happens."
It's a reputation that has followed Fairley somewhat since midseason after he bodyslammed several quarterbacks, including Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and LSU's Jordan Jefferson in consecutive weeks. He has knocked Mallett, Jefferson and Georgia's Aaron Murray out of the game at least temporarily with hard hits.
Earlier in the Georgia game, he planted his helmet into Murray from behind and was flagged for a late hit. The Southeastern Conference didn't suspend him for spearing, but Commissioner Mike Slive did admonish the Tigers. And Fairley's reputation also took a hit.
"We don't teach that," said Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, a former Outland Trophy and Lombardi winner as an Auburn lineman. "Nothing's been dirty. The only play that's been dirty, the commissioner pointed it out to us and we understood that. That was the play against Georgia. He hit him in the back late, we got the penalty. Solved. That's fine.
"He plays within the defense and one thing we know is that he plays hard. If there's something wrong with playing hard, you shouldn't be playing football."
Asked if he tried to hurt quarterbacks, Fairley said: "Of course not."
The "dirty player" claims came to the forefront again following comments from Thomas on Thursday.
"Yeah, we saw he has a lot of dirty plays throwing people around after the plays," Thomas said. "That's just football."
He added, "I'm not really worried about it because it is a physical game. If it happens, it happens. You've got to get back up and be ready for the play."
Clean or dirty, one thing that's hard to dispute: Fairley has been one of college football's most dominant defensive linemen this season. He was named SEC defensive player of the year by The Associated Press, though league coaches honored LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson instead, perhaps more backlash.
Fairley set an Auburn record with 21 tackles for loss and can break the season sacks record of 11 with one on Monday night. The 6-foot-5 junior has emerged as a possible Top 10 NFL draft pick after showing flashes of star potential in his first season with the Tigers.
"He was underrated after last year because nobody knew who he was coming in, but I saw him in games last year," Auburn middle linebacker Josh Bynes said. "I'm right behind him and I see things that are outrageous. That's what he does this year. He just wasn't as consistent with it."
Fairley has declined to discuss whether he'll enter the draft.
Despite his reputation among some opponents, he comes across in person as genial and playful. He ran in front of the TV cameras filming Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton before Wednesday's practice and said, "'Get the cameras over here on us,'" cornerback T'Sharvan Bell said, chuckling at the memory.
"He's a goofball," Bell said. "Don't let him fool you, he's an outright goofball. All the time he's joking around. He doesn't care who it is. When it's time to be serious, he's serious. But he's a goofball. Anytime off the field, he's a goofball."
Fairley seems to have embraced the attention lately after being somewhat publicity-shy for much of the season. He even signed up for a Twitter account just over a week ago and already has 7,500-plus followers. However, Friday morning he went into tweet lockdown.
"This is my last tweet until the 10th!" he tweeted. "Its been fun! WAR EAGLE!"
It took Fairley awhile to come into his own as a player, too. He failed to qualify out of high school in Mobile, Ala., and spent a season at a Mississippi community college.
Before that, he wasn't that highly rated by recruiting services as a 250-pound offensive lineman. Then-Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has said he was sold after watching Fairley play basketball.
Despite his size, teammates still say Fairley is the team's best hoops player.
"You've got to watch him play," Tigers defensive end Nosa Eguae said. "He plays like Charles Barkley out there. There was a rumor going around that he had an offer from Kentucky in basketball, but I didn't believe it. Then he came on the court and he's very good."
Fairley said his high school coaches told him the Wildcats were looking at him but he had already decided to play football.
Chances are, the officials in Monday night's game will also be keeping an eye on Fairley. He was flagged in the regular-season finale against Alabama — Auburn's first outing since the Georgia game — for a relatively muted celebration of a third-down sack. It kept a Crimson Tide touchdown drive alive.
Rocker said Fairley & Co. can't be overly concerned about any extra scrutiny from the referees.
"We leave it all on the field," he said. "We can't control what the ref does. You go out there, you leave it on the field. You get one shot at it, you play within the rules of the game, enjoy it, have fun. Football is blocking and tackling and playing within the rules, and that's all we can do."