AUBURN, Ala. -- It's been a carnival atmosphere at Auburn this season as coach Gus Malzahn has brought confidence back to a program that went 3-9 in 2012. His wide-open offense has recharged players and fans alike, creating stars where there previously were none: the reluctant celebrity, Nick Marshall; the athletic speedster, Sammie Coates; the miracle makers, Chris Davis and Ricardo Louis; the smooth son of De La Soul, Tre Mason.
But while many of Auburn's players have found fame on the road to the Vizio BCS National Championship, the heart of the Tigers' offense remains with the unsexiest of position players: junior center Reese Dismukes. He's not flashy, he doesn't dance and he's far more blue collar than gold chain.
"He’s an extension of his coaches; he demands that the other offensive players practice at a high level, and that is what it takes," Malzahn said. "To have a championship-type team, you’ve got to have leaders that really raise the bar for the rest of their teammates."
Bryant Vincent, who coached Dismukes at Spanish Fort (Ala.) High, has seen that leadership since he was a freshman guard barking out protection schemes to the offensive line in practice, ordering around teammates two and three years older than him.
It's just who he is, Vincent explained, calling him a "country boy who wants to sit around the fire."
"On the field, he's mean. He's kind of like a cage fighter. Off the field, he's happy-go-lucky and wants to be in the woods hunting or on his boat fishing."
Dismukes has always been athletic, though. When Vincent had his team run gassers after practice, Dismukes would routinely beat the running backs and wide receivers to the finish line. And when he wasn't playing football, he was the best player on the tennis and golf teams.
But when he'd go home, it was back to work. Vincent would drop by the Dismukes' home after practice and find Reese working with his father, Ed, until sundown.
"We had just put him through the ringer with a three-hour, grueling workout," Vincent recalled, "and he was outside 30 minutes later just laying pipe. It was just amazing. I looked at him and said, 'Dang son, I know you've got to be tired,' and he said, 'Look, this is what I do every day. I have no choice.'"
He was "as tough as they come," according to Vincent, who said Dismukes played most of his junior year with a hairline fracture in his back.
Dismukes signed with Auburn and started all 13 games as a freshman, earning 2011 Freshman All-American honors despite playing with a dislocated elbow and a couple of broken ribs.
Being good at football came easily to Dismukes, but the game has never been a laughing matter. He learned just how serious it was in 2012.
Before the program turned into a mess and Auburn went winless in league play, Dismukes was suspended from the team after being arrested for public drunkenness by then-head coach Gene Chizik. Dismukes said he was "isolated from the team for a while" and had to work to get the trust of his teammates and coaches back. He missed the season opener against Clemson, returned to play 10 games, and never spoke with the media again that year.
"You just learn when that happens, it’s not how hard you fall, it’s about how you get up," he said. "I think that was just the big thing with that. It opened my eyes, and you’ve got to do right.
"I just had to start acting right, working hard and [answer], ‘Do I really want to do this?'"
Vincent, now the quarterbacks coach at the University of South Alabama, maintains a close relationship with Dismukes and his father. The coach called the arrest "the best thing to ever happen to him" because it brought him back to reality.
"He got the feeling of being untouchable," he said. "He got the 'I'm bigger than' syndrome, but I think there comes a time in everyone's life where something happens, whether it's a good experience or a bad experience, that gets you back on track."
Dismukes was frustrated with how last season unfolded. He'd tell Vincent "how much it sucked" for Auburn to fall so far. Chizik was fired and everyone in the program was forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
In April, Dismukes came back a more determined player. His focus was back on football, on being a leader, on doing the right things. He told reporters, "I walk a lot straighter line." And in doing so, he developed into a Rimington Trophy finalist.
"I probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t have been for that stuff," he said a few weeks ago. "It makes you work harder."
"It’s been great to grow with him," said fellow offensive lineman Alex Kozan. "You can see it in his game. You can see it in the way he executes every week. ... It all starts with him making the calls, and we all go based off that."
Last season, 34.5 percent of Auburn's plays went for zero or negative yards (91st in the country). This season, Auburn cut that number by double digits, trailing only Navy and Army in percentage of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Tigers lead the nation with 335.7 rushing yards per game heading into their Jan. 6 matchup against Florida State in Pasadena, Calif.
Marshall, Mason & Co. may get the lion's share of credit for Auburn's turnaround offensively, but Dismukes and the linemen allow Malzahn to call the shots he wants to call.
“Anytime you can run the football and people know you are going to run the football against the defenses we have, the offensive line deserves a lot of credit,” Malzahn said.
Dismukes may not be the face of the program, but he's a driving force.
Auburn has come a long way since 2012, and if the Tigers are going to continue playing like stars against Florida State, their unassuming center will lead the way.