J.J. Pegues, Auburn football tight ends playing larger role with room to grow

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — J.J. Pegues is from Oxford, Mississippi, and he wanted to make sure everyone knew he was home.

Auburn lined its freshman tight end up in the backfield on the left side of the formation on third-and-2 late in the third quarter of Saturday's game against Ole Miss. Bo Nix handed the ball to running back Tank Bigsby running to his left. Ole Miss linebacker Daylen Gill pursued him from the back side.

He might have had an angle on the freshman running back if not for the 6-foot-2, 300-pound brick wall that slid in front of him.

Pegues lowered his shoulder into Gill’s chest and sent him sprawling onto the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium grass. Bigsby burst through the hole on the left side of the offensive line for a 19-yard gain. The Tigers tied the game with a touchdown two plays later.

If you look only at the final box score, you won’t see much involvement from Auburn’s tight ends during that 35-28 win over the Rebels. John Samuel Shenker recorded the only catch, and it came on a broken play where he wasn’t even supposed to be the target. Pegues and Luke Deal didn’t record a touch.

But that doesn’t mean that tight ends aren’t playing the more significant role in the Tigers’ offense promised by first-year coordinator Chad Morris.

Auburn ran 77 plays on Saturday. There was at least one tight end on the field for 67 of them, and two for 25 of those. Of the 10 plays without a tight end on the field, six came during Auburn’s final drive, when it was trying to – and did – take the lead in the final three minutes.

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They were especially key in run blocking. Auburn rushed 47 times for 224 yards. At least one of Shenker, Pegues and Deal was kept in as a blocker – either next to the tackle or in the backfield as an H-back – on 37 of them, including all four rushing touchdowns.

The Tigers averaged 7.1 yards per carry when two were in the formation (18 for 128, three touchdowns) compared to 3.7 when one or none were on the field (29 for 106, one touchdown).

"This was a tight end type of game," position coach Larry Porter told Auburn's in-house radio crew. "You look back at the 12 personnel, when we had two tight ends in the game, we consistently did that throughout the game, and I thought that benefitted us, especially we continue to evolve in our running game."

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Pegues played the fewest snaps of the trio (27 compared to Shenker’s 33 and Deal’s 35), and still looks at times like he’s unsure of what he’s supposed to do – Deal had to tell him where to line up more than once. But when he is in the right spot, he’s proven himself a true weapon as a blocker.

He and Deal together formed an especially potent duo, combining to make key blocks on both of Bigsby's touchdown runs – 4 yards in the first quarter and 18 in the fourth.

“I want to thank him (Pegues),” said Bigsby, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after rushing 24 times for 129 yards against the Rebels. “There were a lot of plays today where he just stuck his head in the mud and made a big block.”

Fans, though, are more concerned with what tight ends are doing in the passing game given Morris’ history with that position. That part of their game remains a work in progress. Shenker, Pegues and Deal have combined to make four catches for 25 yards through five games. That surpasses last year’s total (three for 21) but is still far below the production Morris got in his last season at Arkansas (45 for 476).

Most of the tight end’s involvement in the passing game Saturday was as blockers. Not to give Nix extra time in the pocket, but rather in attempt to spring receivers free on swing and screen passes. Results were mixed – Nix completed 12 of 12 such throws, but they totaled just 38 yards (3.2 yards per attempt).

That can’t be blamed solely on the tight ends, of course. But there were a few plays where the need for a better effort stood out. One of the formations the Tigers lined up in often on Saturday was four-wide with a wide receiver stacked behind a tight end. Three times, Nix fired quick passes out to those receivers. But the blocks weren’t held long enough, and those plays – one to Kobe Hudson and two to Seth Williams – gained 1, 0 and 0 yards, respectively.

As far as being receiving options themselves, Shenker was the only one who ran any routes Saturday, doing so on nine of the 30 plays Nix threw passes. His lone catch actually came on one of the other 21 – Auburn called an underneath crossing route to Williams on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter, but Nix fled pressure in the pocked before the wide receiver popped open. Shenker saw it and slipped off his block, and the quarterback found him for a 15-yard gain and crucial first down.

Bigsby scored his second touchdown two plays later.

Whether an uptick in production is coming for the tight end position remains to be seen. Freshman Brandon Frazier has perhaps the highest potential as a receiver at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, but coach Gus Malzahn said he’s still a couple of weeks away from returning (though he did recently return to practice in a limited capacity).

Pegues hasn’t run the Wildcat formation since a Week 3 win over Arkansas, though that may just be due to the discovery of Bigsby’s short-yardage prowess – he converted four third-and-shorts Saturday.

But tight ends are making an impact, and the fact that they’re playing so many snaps leaves open the possibility that their role will continue to grow during the second half of the season.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.