Auburn Football: Who's Responsible for the Ascent of Tigers Newton and Fairley?

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Auburn Football: Who's Responsible for the Ascent of Tigers Newton and Fairley?
Cam Newton prospered under the guidance of Gus Malzahn

There's little question that NFL-bound former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is one of the most talented individuals to ever grace the gridiron. By the same token, Tiger defensive lineman Nick Fairley developed into one of the country's most feared pass rushers and a potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

The daunting combination of Newton's unstoppable force and Fairley's immovable object is a primary reason the Auburn Tigers hoisted the crystal football on January 10.

As the two Tiger stars make their way to the next level, the question that begs an answer  is who made who? Did the talent of Newton and Fairley help burnish the resume of their position coaches, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker? Or was it the guidance of the two Auburn coaches which turned Newton and Fairley into household names?

Both Newton and Fairley literally came from nowhere to become megawatt college football stars and likely first-round draft picks. At the beginning of the season, neither was high on anyone's potential draft board, and the last thing anyone of sound mind expected was that both could potentially be top 10 picks in the April draft.

There's no denying that both Newton and Fairley possess an inordinate amount of talent. Talent alone, however, isn't always enough. There have been scores of talented players who didn't make the rocket-fueled ascent enjoyed by Newton and Fairley in 2010.  That begs the question. What set them apart?

In both cases, you could argue that coaching—and being in the right place at the right time—had as much to do with their domination as did their own undeniable talents.

You cannot ignore Newton's raw talent.  If you've ever watched clips of him re-imagining the field as quarterback at Blinn Community College, you know what kind of potential he possessed.  The key for Newton, however, was to take that raw energy and repackage it in such a way that it could do the most damage to SEC defenses.

No coach in the country was perhaps better suited to take Newton's burgeoning talent and harness it for maximum efficiency than Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. 

Before we get to Newton's record setting season, take a look at what Malzahn was able to accomplish at his previous coaching stop, Tulsa, when given the offensive reins there.

In 2006, the year prior to Malzahn's arrival, Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith threw for 2,727 yards and 15 touchdowns.  The following season, Malzahn's first, Smith blistered defenses for 5,065 yards and 47 touchdowns.  Tulsa led the nation in total offense in 2007.

In addition to the passing totals, Tulsa's rushing game improved under Malzahn. In 2006, the Golden Hurricane had no rusher top the 1,000-yard plateau.  In Malzahn's first season, Tarrion Adams carried for 1,225 yards.

A year later, David Johnson took over at quarterback for Tulsa and continued to light up the airways. Johnson completed 65 percent of his passes. He threw for 4,059 yards and 46 touchdowns.

Adams upped his rushing total to 1,523 yards in 2008 as the Golden Hurricane finished second in the nation in total offense.

It's worth noting that when Malzahn left Tulsa for Auburn, 2009 production dropped back to pre-Malzahn levels.  The Golden Hurricane managed just 2,732 yards and 22 scores through the air.  Tulsa did not have a single back rush for more than 400 yards.

Malzahn worked miracles in his first season as Auburn offensive coordinator.

Prior to Malzahn's arrival, a 2008 mishmash nightmare combination of Chris Todd and Kodi Burns managed just seven touchdowns through the air. Neither had a completion rate of greater than 55 percent. Auburn scored a wimpy 17 points per game, and leading rusher Ben Tate finished with a dismal 664 total yards rushing.

Under Malzahn, the same Chris Todd completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,612 yards and 22 touchdowns. An energized Tate rumbled for 1,362 yards.

Then came Newton. The freakishly talented quarterback gave Malzahn options. Newton had a tremendous arm and could move the chains with his legs.

Credit Malzahn for finding the right balance and for knowing when to let Cam just be Cam.

Still, despite all the deserved accolades thrown Newton's way, his offensive production is fairly pedestrian in a Malzahn coached offense.

Newton threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, completing 66 percent of his passes.  Better than Todd, but not to the level of the Tulsa quarterbacks coached by Malzahn.

Newton also rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns, but even with that, his combined offensive output trails that of Smith (5,184 total yards and 50 scores) and is roughly equivalent to that of Johnson (4,245 total yards and 49 touchdowns).

While Newton was piling up yards and drawing national attention, freshman Michael Dyer quietly rumbled for 1,093 yards and battery mate Onterrio McCalebb rushed for 810.

On the defensive side of the ball, Fairley made headlines for his ball hawking intensity and an uncanny ability to shed blocks and dial in on opposing quarterbacks.

Again, there's no question Fairley was a force to contend with, but prior to 2010 and particularly prior to the Thursday night game against Mississippi State, Fairley was a relative unknown.

What fueled his burst into the national consciousness and the backfields of opposing teams?  Innate ability?  Or could coaching have played a part?

Nick Fairley, like his coach Tracy Rocker, won the Lombardi Award.

Fairley came to Auburn, like Newton, after a stint in junior college. His first season on the Tiger defensive line was hardly noteworthy. He lacked intensity and had a reputation for taking plays off.

Enter Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. A former Lombardi and Outland award winner, Rocker challenged Fairley, and he responded.

Coaching linemen who overachieve is a Rocker trademark.

As defensive line coach at Troy State, Rocker coached three players who were named D1-AA All-Americans. One, Al Lucas, was selected D1-AA defensive player of the year.

Thirteen players received All-Conference honors under Rocker, and five went on to NFL careers.

At Arkansas, Rocker tutored All-SEC defensive end Jeb Huckeba, who collected 56 total tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks.

He also mentored lineman Jamaal Anderson, who led the league with 14 sacks (for -100 yards), 65 total tackles and 20.5 tackles for a loss.

Maybe it's no surprise that Fairley blossomed under Rocker at Auburn, recording 10.5 sacks and 21 tackles for a loss.

There's no debate that both Newton and Fairley are tremendous talents and deserving of every ounce of praise directed their way. But if you look at the historical performances of the two coaches responsible for their performance, a valid argument can be made that both Newton and Fairley benefited from the guidance of Malzahn and Rocker as much as or more than the two Tiger coaches may have benefited from the talent their proteges brought to the game.

 

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