The hottest debate in the Auburn football complex surrounding J.J. Pegues’ move from tight end to defensive line had nothing to do with what position he should play.
Pegues made that conversation sound easy. Bryan Harsin called him into his office last Monday, at the start of the team’s week off splitting spring in half. The coach told the sophomore that he felt like he could be a big piece and leader in the defensive line room. That’s really all Pegues needed to hear.
“I chose to go to D-line just for my team. So we can get wins,” Pegues said. “I feel like it's an opportunity for me to show the world that I can play both sides — tight end and D-line — and I feel like if I do that, I can help the team and maybe one day play in the NFL.”
But there were hard conversations taking place in the tight ends room. Luke Deal said he and the rest of the group had to debate whether they should keep Pegues in the position-group chat or kick him out.
Ultimately, they decided to let him stay. As it turns out, Auburn players feel the same way fans do about Pegues.
“We love J.J., but we feel like that’s a place where he’s going to thrive,” Deal said. “He’s a freak athlete who’s just — man, he’s a great guy and like I said, everybody on the team loves him so it’s not really going to be detrimental anywhere.”
It’s much more likely that it will help. Auburn, in very un-Auburn fashion, may actually have more depth at tight end than it does on the defensive line, which lost a host of players such as Derick Hall, T.D. Moultry, Jaren Handy and Caleb Johnson to the new “Edge” spot in coordinator Derek Mason’s primarily 3-4 scheme.
Deal is one of five players the Tigers can still rotate through the tight end and fullback spots, along with John Samuel Shenker, Brandon Frazier, Tyler Fromm and Landen King. They list only eight players for three defensive line spots, though. One of those — Jeremiah Wright — is out indefinitely after tearing his ACL. Two others — Tyrone Truesdell and Marquis Burks — are seniors.
So it appears there is room for Pegues to work his way into the rotation. Now comes the hard part: Learning the position. Pegues has ideal size at 6-foot-3 and 308 pounds, but he doesn’t really have a base to build from like Wright did when he made the move from offensive line to defensive line prior to the start of last season. He was a two-way player in high school. Pegues was almost exclusively an offensive player at Oxford (Miss.) High.
He played some defensive end in certain short-yardage situations but never once lined up at tackle, the spot the Tigers have him playing along with Burks and Zykeivous Walker. So he’s learning on the fly at the SEC level.
“I think just learning the language that they use,” Pegues said of the toughest part of the transition. “And the techniques. You know, taking on double-teams, how to get into stance, like all of that. And me being behind a little bit, it frustrates me a little bit.”
Pegues has plenty of help, though. He’s been studying film of three-time first-team All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who starred at Houston and now plays for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Colby Wooden is helping him learn the playbook. Everyone else in that group has been helping through practices, whether that be lining him up in the right spots or teaching him basic hand position and movement.
Defensive line coach Nick Eason has been an asset, too, using his 17 years of experience as an NFL player and coach to give Pegues tips for things he can do on and off the field.
“He’s excited. He’s looking forward to a new challenge and finding ways to help the team,” Pegues’ high school coach, Chris Cutcliffe, told the Advertiser. “I think he can be a phenomenal player. He’s so explosive. He’s great with his hands. He has a lot of tools that I think that will translate really well to being a dominant defensive lineman.”
It seems the only downside to the move is that it takes the ball out of his hands. Pegues recorded just 12 touches as a freshman, but he didn’t need that many to become a fan favorite — on his third carry of the season, against Arkansas, Pegues ran around the right edge, spun around one defender and hurdled another. He remembered a reporter referring to him as a “300-pound Saquon Barkley.”
But Pegues’ attitude, Cutcliffe said, has always been one of “willing to do anything to help the team,” whether that means playing offense, defense or special teams. Right now, he’s focused on the last two.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve seen the last of him on offense, though — Pegues said he “might have goal-line packages" down the line.
That’s reason enough to keep him in the tight end group chat.