Meet J.J. Pegues, AKA Auburn's new hurdling, spinning, bulldozing 300-pound spark plug
We all had the same reaction.
There was nothing we could do in order to mentally prepare for what happened on Oct. 10, 2020. We watched a 6-2, 300-pound guy spin and hurdle his way into our collective hearts.
There was a 3-part reaction to Auburn freshman J.J. Pegues’ viral moment against Arkansas. First there’s the “oh, something is about to happen” when one sees a 300-pound guy line up as the wildcat quarterback. Then, of course, there’s the “woah!” when one sees a 300-pound guy spin away from a tackler. And just in case that wasn’t enough, then there’s the “OH MY GOODNESS” when one sees a 300-pound guy hurdle a defensive back to pick up the first down.
If the multiple roars of the Jordan-Hare crowd were any indication, Auburn fans — and probably even Arkansas fans — know what I’m talking about. If they were like me, they had another thought cross their mind.
Who is this football unicorn?
I wanted to look beyond his high school recruiting ranking (No. 226 overall in the 2020 class in the 247sports composite) and what Gus Malzahn thought of him, though admittedly I had to ask the Auburn coach what he thought of Pegues’ football pirouette. Malzahn said there had been some “wow” moments in practice, “but there’s nothing like doing them in the game.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if anybody has had that type of a guy with that size in the wildcat,” Malzahn said. “You’ll see him be utilized in a lot of different ways this year. That’s just one of them. So far, he’s been very impressive.”
Ahead of his matchup against Pegues’ Auburn squad, I knew that Lane Kiffin was already well aware of the Oxford High School star and that after taking the Ole Miss job in December, his last-minute pitch didn’t prevent Pegues from signing with the Tigers. What I didn’t realize until I asked Kiffin was that while Ole Miss had a hat at Pegues’ table on National Signing Day, there was another reason that recruiting miss stuck with him.
“I never got a chance to meet with him, unfortunately. It is what it is,” Kiffin said. “Special player. The guy plays special teams at that size, speed, ran wildcat and if he ever wanted to go to the other side, he’d probably be a top-5 pick as a 3-technique.
“Really special player. Type of kid we wish were here.”
Wait a minute. A top-5 pick as a 3-technique defensive lineman?
“Just a freak athlete,” Kiffin said.
That, as I quickly found out, was an understatement.
Pegues is listed as a “tight end,” which is also where his dad played at Oxford High School and Arkansas State, but he’s perhaps better suited to be listed as what he was called during the recruiting process. “Athlete.” Through 5 games at Auburn, he played wildcat quarterback, H-back, tight end and he even turned heads on special teams, where Kiffin said he saw Pegues “knock someone out.” He blocks on split zones, he makes people miss in the open field and he takes it all in stride.
Ask anyone who watched him closely in high school and they’ll tell you the same thing — that’s nothing new. The only thing that’s new is the stage.
“It’s one thing to do that in high school against a 240-pound defensive lineman and a buck-sixty defensive back. But when you can continue to do those things at the SEC level, the ‘wow’ factor doesn’t go away for the interested bystander. I’ll tell you that much,” said 247sports’ David Johnson, who covered Pegues’ recruitment at Oxford High School (Miss.). “You’re not supposed to do the things you do in high school as well as you do them as a true freshman in the Southeastern Conference.
“Everything I’ve seen from JJ thus far, he’s doing that.”
* * * * *
The SEC is littered with wildly athletic true freshmen who have stories that sound like folklore about their high school days.
When Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter was an AAU basketball star, his teammates would lob him alley-oops from half-court. When Kentucky defensive tackle Justin Rogers was a 300-pound blue-chip recruit, his high school coach would occasionally move him to linebacker. When LSU tight end Arik Gilbert was, as some opposing high school coaches said, “an NFL defensive end playing slot receiver,” he also played 6 or 7 positions. When South Carolina defensive lineman Jordan Burch was a 2-way phenomenon at Hammond High School (SC), he starred as a running back and receiver … at 6-6, 275 pounds.
The stories about Pegues’ athleticism are also fittingly unique … and plentiful.
There are the more subtle stories, like when Pegues, while nursing a foot injury, messed around before a game and tried to catch as many footballs as he could at the same time:
What practice looks like when you can’t practice. Just a minor foot sprain for JJ Pegues. Coach Cutcliffe said they’re just giving him a precautionary day and that they’re not super worried about it pic.twitter.com/BqncXe4nNi
— Nathanael Gabler (@nategabler) October 7, 2019
There was the time when as a sophomore, Pegues, operating out of Oxford’s “Cannonball” package as the wildcat quarterback for the first time, took the snap to the right end and proceeded to knock down a linebacker and truck a hopeless defensive back en route to pay dirt. “That was the point I figured out, ‘Nah, they’re not gonna move him to the offensive line,’” Johnson said with a laugh.
Pegues’ high school coach, Chris Cutcliffe, had a front-row seat to all things Pegues. He was the one who had the responsibility for recognizing that the 6-2, 230-pound freshman who torched Lafayette probably was ready to play varsity football. It wasn’t until Pegues’ sophomore year when he expanded from tight end to running back/wildcat quarterback/bruising special teams player. Oh, and he would also sometimes line up on the defensive line.
“He was definitely a matchup nightmare,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s not anybody else like him at that size who does the things he does.”
First possession = first score of the game from J.J. Pegues, 3 yards out. 2pt try good. @SESMississippi
Oxford 8, Hernando 0
6:44 1Q pic.twitter.com/h5CcgRTAHS
— Jared Redding (@JaredERedding) November 2, 2019
Cutcliffe couldn’t keep him off the field, especially when he made highlight-reel play in state championships. When Oxford played in that game in Pegues’ junior season, Oxford was backed up on its own 1-yard line trailing in the 4th quarter. Pegues lined up out wide and was targeted deep downfield. Naturally, he hauled it in as he made a full-extension dive. That set up a go-ahead touchdown.
There was also the time during Pegues’ final regular-season game of his high school career when Cutcliffe lined him up at tailback … only to watch the 285-pound senior break “8-10 tackles” for a 50-yard touchdown run.
Pegues was so dominant that Cutcliffe deferred to him in ways that he wouldn’t for any other player. On one occasion, Oxford was locked in a scoreless game with “monsoon” conditions. At the end of the first half, Oxford made a field goal for the game’s first points, but their kicker was roughed. Conventional wisdom suggested that Cutcliffe would follow the old coaching rule of never taking points off the board. Instead, Pegues talked his coach into making an incredibly risky move.
“JJ convinces me that he would score before half if we took the field goal off the board,” Cutcliffe said. “I told him, ‘You dang sure better do it.’”
And he dang sure did. One fade route to Pegues, 1 touchdown. One eventual victory.
Meagher throws it up to JJ Pegues for this 13 yard score!! Wow. @SESMississippi
Oxford 7, Olive Branch 0
3 seconds 2Q pic.twitter.com/ECCR6ChQPI
— Jared Redding (@JaredERedding) October 26, 2019
Cutcliffe could probably rattle off Pegues stories all day. We didn’t even really dig into his basketball skills, though Cutcliffe made sure to say, “see his jump shot from the perimeter and how he handles the basketball. I mean, he’s just impressive at everything he tries to do.” One of Cutcliffe’s favorite moments with Pegues had nothing to do with athletics. Before he left for Auburn, Pegues and his girlfriend stopped by Cutcliffe’s house. Unannounced, they brought over cookies for Cutcliffe’s kids.
The stories of Pegues’ kind ways aren’t limited to his high school coach. After his sophomore season when he started to become a household name, Pegues was scheduled to attend the Southern Elite Combine, which was held about 200 miles from Oxford in Brookhaven (Miss.). Johnson, who helped run the camp, found out that Pegues had a last-minute injury, and he assumed that he wouldn’t be there. After all, Pegues didn’t need the exposure. Driving 3.5 hours to attend a camp that he couldn’t participate in wasn’t necessarily a common move for a high school kid.
Pegues, in case you couldn’t tell, wasn’t a common high school kid.
He made the drive and showed up for the camp even though he couldn’t participate. Why? He said he’d be there.
“To me,” Johnson said, “that’s the epitome of what kind of a kid J.J. is.”
It was at that camp where Johnson first saw Pegues play when he was entering 9th grade. His arrival at Oxford followed the graduation of another star — D.K. Metcalf. Cutcliffe was Metcalf’s receivers coach before he got the head gig at Oxford. Physically, both Metcalf and Pegues clearly had rare gifts, albeit in different ways. Both come from football families with fathers who played college ball. Ask Cutcliffe about their similarities and he’ll tell you it’s about how they were raised.
“That connection between those two and that legacy that D.K. left, I think J.J. picked it up and ran with it,” Cutcliffe said.
Pegues’ recruitment never really turned into the circus that it could’ve been. Yes, some college coaches wanted to play Pegues on the defensive line, which he wasn’t totally opposed to. But just as his dad did, his first choice was to play tight end and have the ball in his hands.
Why didn’t he stay in Oxford and go to Ole Miss like Metcalf?
According to Johnson, Pegues was always up front in his recruiting process. Having grown up with a big family in Oxford — he had 3 first cousins on his high school team — there was a desire to follow a new path. “It started to leak that he was leaning toward Gus Malzahn and Auburn, and he stayed true to his word, much to the disappointment of Ole Miss fans,” Johnson said. The less that Johnson saw Pegues at the Manning Center on Ole Miss’ campus, the more obvious it was to him that he would take his versatile skill set outside the city limits for college.
Nothing swayed Pegues from that decision. Not Nick Saban coming to Oxford to visit him just before Signing Day, and not Kiffin taking over at Ole Miss.
“That ship had sailed,” Johnson said. “You can’t fault (Kiffin) for trying to get a meeting with him to get him on campus, and you can’t fault him for not really understanding that J.J. had made his mind up probably 2 years prior.”
Now, there’s a new question that’s being asked.
What’s Pegues’ future?
* * * * *
If you saw the play Saturday, you probably had the same reaction that I did.
What play, you ask?
6’2″ 300 lbs.
True freshman 😳😤 pic.twitter.com/qULCShmsrS
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 25, 2020
Did anyone else picture how that play would have looked in slow motion with some old NFL Films music playing in the background?
That play happened on the same field where a younger Pegues used to watch games. In the bowels of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium was where Johnson used to walk past Pegues and think one day he’d watch him do that for the hometown team. Instead, Pegues’ homecoming highlighted what Kiffin knew already going into the Auburn-Ole Miss game — that kid from Oxford is a problem no matter where he’s lined up.
Where Pegues plays moving forward remains an intriguing question. Cutcliffe said that even with all the ways Auburn has used Pegues so far, “they’re just scratching the surface.”
Pegues’ game has shades of former Arkansas star Jason Peters, who played the tight end position at 300 pounds in college and went on to become an All-Pro offensive tackle in the NFL. The local comparison for Pegues is Jeremy Liggins, who won consecutive state championships at nearby Lafayette as a 6-3, 280-pound quarterback. Liggins signed with LSU but ended up at Ole Miss via the JUCO route. After spending time as a tight end and wildcat quarterback in college, he ultimately settled into a role as an offensive tackle.
Johnson remembered watching Liggins, who was a physical marvel his own right. But Pegues, Johnson said, had more athleticism. He believes Pegues has the tools to become one of the most complete tight ends in America.
Cutcliffe watched Pegues do the little things to become a unique weapon. Pegues’ training prevented him from adding the wrong kind of size. Before COVID-19 shut down high school activities this past spring, Pegues worked out with the sprinters on Oxford’s track and field team. He was still going to throw in meets, but adding that element before enrolling at Auburn over the summer allowed him to keep that skill-player mentality.
Who knows what an SEC strength and conditioning program will do for Pegues’ skill set. He’s just a few months into his college career and he’s already doing some of the same things that made him a must-see event in high school.
Granted, Pegues doesn’t have 10 touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback like he did in his final high school regular season before earning MVP honors in a state championship game. He has yet to talk Malzahn into taking 3 points off the board so he can catch a fade in the end zone before halftime. We still haven’t seen Pegues plow through an entire defense en route to pay dirt.
It says even more about Pegues that he made such an early impression at Auburn with just 5 touches for 20 yards and a handful of head-turning blocks. Already, he’s got SEC coaches calling him “freak,” “special” and “impressive.” Perhaps there are 3 other words that’ll come to mind as Pegues continues to make waves as a 300-pound football unicorn.
Oh my goodness.