AUBURN – Mike Pelton knew what the young players he coached were up against. He’d been there, had played in the violent world that is the line of scrimmage in the Southeastern Conference.
Defensive line coach Mike Pelton
Pelton, an All-Southeastern Conference defensive tackle in 1995, joined Auburn’s staff as defensive line coach last spring. He inherited little experience. Most of his defensive tackles weren’t even on campus yet.
“I did anticipate it being hard just because of the youth and knowing the conference,” Pelton said. “There wasn’t a lot of experience. The biggest challenge for me was going to be building depth. They are talented. It was just going to be a matter of how fast and how far (they could come).”
As the season began, Pelton had sophomore starters across the board – Corey Lemonier and Nosa Eguae at ends and Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter at tackles. Three true freshmen were in the playing rotation at tackle. As a group, they struggled to stop the run and struggled to pressure quarterbacks.
Injuries took their toll. Junior Dee Ford was playing at a high level at defensive end and was lost to a back injury. Redshirt freshmen Justin Delaine and LaDarius Owens were lost to leg injuries. But the defensive line grew stronger and tougher and meaner with each passing week.
As the Tigers prepare to play LSU, the nation’s No. 1 team, in Baton Rouge on Saturday, the defensive line and defense as a whole have undergone a transformation.
Pelton has been the patient teacher, doling out praise and discipline.
“They have come quite a bit, but they had to,” Pelton said. “Like I said in the beginning, it was going to get tougher as the season went on. Here we are facing our biggest challenge of the season. Those guys have worked. It’s not surprising. We are still down a few guys from injuries. The ones who are playing still have a long way to go, but they have gotten and are getting better.”
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof was disappointed when Tracy Rocker left for the Tennessee Titans after last season’s national championship run. But he says Pelton has been all he could have wanted.
“I think there’s been a tremendous amount of progress,” Roof said. “He’s done a fantastic job of being demanding and driving those kids and at the same time mentoring them. Those kids have done a great job of buying into what he’s teaching. We’ve seen a lot of strides, but we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. We need to make some more strides real quick.”
Auburn will take on the No. 1 team in the nation with the same four starters that opened the season. Behind them will be true freshman tackles Gabe Wright, Alonzo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler. Sophomore Craig Sanders is the No. 1 backup at both ends. Sigler also is working at end.
“Those guys have come a long way, but we haven’t even tipped the iceberg of where those guys can possibly be,” Pelton said. “I’m really excited about where they are headed, but we are still a work in progress. By no means have they arrived. We’ll get a really good measuring stick by playing one of the best teams in the country Saturday.”
The field at Tiger Stadium, Pelton says, will be for men only.
“You know where they are lining up, and they are just coming right at you,” Pelton said. “They are ranked No. 1 for a reason. We have to play well up front to have a chance to win. That’s every week, but especially this week. They are going to try to manhandle us up front.”