Coleman a major factor for Tigers

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

AUBURN, Ala. -- Antonio Coleman wasn't playing with his hands tied, but it felt like it.

The Auburn defensive end spent part of the season with a cast protecting his right wrist and couldn't shed blocks, sack quarterbacks or even make tackles. For two games, Coleman didn't have a single tackle.

"I feel like I was doing all I could to help the football team with the situation that I had," he said. "It was tough, and my teammates knew that I was going through a tough time. Those guys were never down on me. They picked me up. The coaching staff picked me up and just told me to play through it.

"I promised those guys when I got out of that cast, you'd see a different me. And that's what happened at the end of the season."

The senior, who passed up a chance to leave early for the NFL, switched to a less restrictive cast against LSU and shed it altogether in the final two games.

Coleman had 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in the remaining five games to wind up leading the Southeastern Conference in both categories for the Tigers, who will play Northwestern in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. He helped spark one of Auburn's biggest wins, over Mississippi, with four stops behind the line, two sacks, a blocked extra-point attempt and a forced fumble.

He wound up earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors for the second straight season.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker's assessment of Coleman's finish: "Wow."

"He stepped up to the plate," Rocker said. "I was proud of him. He just played. He didn't care. He played relentless and he had fun."

Added linebacker Josh Bynes: "He's been off the charts. He had a downfall in the middle of the season because of the injury. Coming into the end of the season, he was getting to the ball and getting to the quarterback. He's one of the premier d-ends who came back to school. I love being around him."

Coleman needs three sacks against Northwestern to break the Auburn career mark of 26 shared by Quentin Groves and Gerald Robinson.

It's a mark that seemed out of his reach after those tackle goose eggs against Tennessee and Arkansas. He had two sacks in a six-game span going into LSU.

Coleman will play in the Senior Bowl in January to audition for NFL scouts. He supplied a big boost to the defense by deciding not to follow fellow Auburn juniors Jerraud Powers and Sen'Derrick Marks into the NFL last season.

Coleman had already graduated, but said he wanted to end his career on a better note than last year's 5-7 record and blowout loss to Alabama. And he wanted to play for new coach Gene Chizik.

Chizik called Coleman "the ultimate team guy.

"He tried to play the whole year hurt, really a huge disadvantage for a defensive lineman," the coach said. "As he got better and got some more confidence and got healthy, he was a different player. He was very productive for our defense.

"Just really proud of the way he came on in the last few games. It couldn't happen to a better team guy."

Chizik declined to speculate on whether Coleman helped his draft stock but figures the lineman's decision to return even though he had a degree could impress NFL executives.

"That for sure is going to carry him and people are going to respect that at the next level as they go to evaluate where he is," Chizik said.