On a late September afternoon, the five Oregon starting offensive linemen gathered in a meeting room to watch film of the Wisconsin offensive line. The players sat mesmerized in front of the screen, appreciating the textbook-perfect techniques of the Badgers' linemen like they might a fine Willamette Valley red.
"We were like, 'Wow, look at that,'" recalls Asper, noting that 11--1 Wisconsin had one of the top lines in the country this season. "All five of their guys took perfect first steps, got [engaged with] their linebackers or their down linemen and drove them for five yards."
Still fresh in the minds of the Ducks' linemen was the team's 26--17 loss to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl, in which they were dominated by the Buckeyes' defensive front. (Oregon rushed for 179 yards, 57 shy of its average.) Taking cues from the Wisconsin video session, the Ducks' line has become one of the most efficient units in the nation. The team ranks first in the nation in scoring offense, second in total offense and fourth in rushing offense, while the line has allowed just eight sacks.
In all likelihood none of the Ducks' starting offensive linemen will go on to star in the NFL. (The only lineman to earn first-team All--Pac-10 honors was Holmes.) They are an overachieving group, lumberjack strong, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They're effective because they excel at the teamwork and communication required for zone blocking. "They rarely have a bust," says McElroy.
The Alabama quarterback points out that, the Ducks' success against Paea notwithstanding, zone-blocking schemes are more vulnerable when facing an up-the-field colossus such as Fairley. (McElroy should know; Fairley had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Tide's zone-blocking line.) So Oregon's primary concern on Jan. 10 will be to contain Fairley, who led the SEC with 10½ sacks and 21 tackles for loss. "He does things that not a whole lot of guys in the country can do," says Holmes. "He's the total package."
Ever since his first down of organized football as a six-year-old in Mobile, Fairley has been creating chaos on the field. "His very first game," says Fairley's father, Herbert Rogers, a retired processing technician at DuPont, "we just put him over the center and said, 'Get the ball.' On his first play he tackles the quarterback, forces a fumble and recovers the fumble. The very first play! Ain't nothing changed since then. Just tell him to 'Go get the ball' and trust me, he will go get the ball."
Coming out of Williamson High in Mobile in 2007, Fairley committed to Auburn. But he failed to qualify academically, so he spent two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. "He cried when he realized he had to go to a juco," says Fairley's mother, Paula Rogers, a custodian for the Mobile public schools. "We dropped him off there, and 30 minutes later my phone rings and Nick says, 'Mama, I want to come home.' I told him to hang in there and stay focused. He did. The experience changed his life."
After redshirting in 2007, Fairley had 63 tackles and seven sacks in seven games for Copiah-Lincoln in '08. In December of that year he was ready to sign with Auburn. However, according to his father, Alabama linebackers coach James Willis called and suggested that his son visit Tuscaloosa. As soon as Gene Chizik, who had been named Auburn's coach a few days earlier, heard of the Tide's interest in the big tackle, he immediately flew on a private jet to Mobile, where he met Fairley and his father. "Nick can be a part of something special at Auburn," Chizik told them. "He can be a piece of the foundation that we're building for our program." A few days later Fairley—who is projected by one NFL general manager to be a top 10 pick in April's NFL draft if he decides to forgo his senior season—officially signed with the Tigers.
Nick is better than I ever was," says Tigers defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who in 1988 won the Outland and Lombardi trophies while at Auburn. Rocker, though, adds that extracting maximum effort out of Fairley did not come easily. He started just two games in 2009, benched for a habit of dogging it on the field.
"The turning point for him was the LSU game in October ," Rocker says. "In LSU's first possession of that game we got an interception. Nick didn't do anything on the play—he didn't come close to the quarterback—but I see him out there celebrating. I met him on the field and got in his face, yelling that he didn't do anything. He wanted to fight me, and he did eventually apologize, but it was like the light suddenly went on for him. He quit taking plays off. And good things tend to happen for us when he gives great effort. He can be unstoppable."