Like a ball of smoke and fire bursting out of a cannon, last year, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley emerged onto the college gridiron scene with a chip on his shoulder and a knack for punching holes through opposing offensive lines.
Fairley came out of nowhere.
In surprising fashion, the stud interior lineman for the Tigers would end up winning the Lombardi Award, which is awarded annually to college football's top defensive lineman or linebacker.
For the 2011 season, Fairley finished with 11.5 sacks, 24 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and one interception. As striking as those numbers are, it was a huge surprise, akin to hitting the lottery for Auburn since Fairley only tallied 1.5 sacks the year before in limited playing time.
One-year wonder or not, Fairley was an animal. He helped guide the Auburn Tigers to a BCS National Championship. In their win versus Oregon, Fairley was named the defensive player of the game.
All of the analysis in the world can not determine if Fairley was a one-year wonder. He persevered through community college and made his way onto Auburn only to become a star his senior year. With last year behind, people only want to know—who will be this year's Nick Fairley?
Look no further than Devon Still, a senior defensive tackle for Penn State.
Aside from character concerns, which Still apparently has zero of, the comparisons between Fairley and Still are encouraging when put into perspective.
Instead of taking the junior college route, Still had to overcome adversity when, as a redshirt freshman in 2008, and still recovering from a torn ACL, he had to endure through a broken ankle which sidelined him until the final game of the regular season.
In 2009, things began to look up for Still. He wasn't a starting interior lineman but he did appear in every game, adding two sacks to his resume. While playing in the shadows of future first-round pick defensive tackle Jared Odrick, Still learned a lot and it was to show in 2010.
In 2010, Still would go on to lead the Nittany Lions in sacks with four. While that is not saying much, what is encouraging about Still is how he ended his redshirt junior campaign. As many noted throughout the season a year ago, with Still, the talent is there but the production was not.
Still's coming-out party came in the Outback Bowl versus the Florida Gators. While standing toe-to-toe with arguably the nation's best offensive lineman, Mike Pouncey, Still would go on to have the best game of his collegiate career. Still would finish the Outback Bowl with seven tackles, including 3.5 for a loss.
Pouncey would end up preparing for the NFL draft, where he was selected 15th overall by the Miami Dolphins while Still would get back to the gym in preparation for what could be a magical journey for Penn State in 2011.
Rarely ever does a Penn State defensive lineman go unnoticed. Most recently, Penn State has churned out the likes of Tamba Hali, Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, Jared Odrick and others. Unfortunately, Still has yet to earn the attention that any of the aforementioned had received while in Happy Valley.
That is expected to change in 2011 as Still breaks out and eclipses expectations, all while having a profound effect nationally much like Auburn's Nick Fairley had in his final year of collegiate ball.
At 6'5", 311 pounds, Still is still not yet considered one of the best interior linemen in the nation. He is hovering in the shadows of Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Miami's Marcus Forston, and Nebraska's Jared Crick.
Yet, Still's upside is much higher than that of the three just mentioned.
The lack of media attention both locally and nationally is just adding fuel to the fire that Still is going to ignite in 2011. The expectations aren't high but the potential is welcoming, especially for a defensive line that appeared to underachieve a year ago.
For things to go right in Happy Valley, Devon Still will have to emerge and have a Nick Fairley-impact on the field in his final year at Penn State.
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