Mike Pelton seems awfully happy for a guy replacing two Lombardi Award winners.
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Auburn’s new defensive line coach is charged with plugging holes on the front four at his alma mater, filling the shoes of predecessor Tracy Rocker and replacing Nick Fairley.
Both Lombardi winners are gone to the NFL, either as a coach or an expected first-round pick.
Pelton, an All-Southeastern Conference lineman at Auburn in 1994, inherited scant experience on the line and no proven players in the middle after Rocker left to coach with the Tennessee Titans. But he said he’s ”tickled to death” to be back.
”He’s got young guys that have got a lot of want-to,” coach Gene Chizik said Monday. ”He’s got a great group of kids that really, really work hard. Are we replacing a lot of talent that will be gone on the defensive line? Yes. That doesn’t mean we don’t have talent there now. It’s an experience problem there more than anything.
”But (tackles) Jeff Whitaker and Kenneth Carter, those guys have got to step it up. There’s no more, ‘I’m a true freshman.’ They’ve got to understand right now what it’s like down there and they’ve got to produce.”
The line was the most dominant part of the defense during Auburn’s national championship run, largely because of Fairley. Fellow starters Zach Clayton and Antonio Carter are also gone.
Whitaker, one of last year’s top signees, and Carter are the two most likely starting candidates but they combined for 13 tackles last season. Fairley nearly matched that in sacks alone (11 1/2).
The most experienced returnee is sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae.
So why does Pelton smile so much when he talks about practice and his return to Auburn?
”Coach (Jay) Boulware’s like, ‘Coach Pelton’s on the Kool-Aid today,”’ Pelton said of his first practice back. ”It was a natural high, just to be back at Auburn. Every day is like that. I told them in the team meeting, ‘This is personal to me.’ It’s not just a coach coming back, it’s a guy coming home, and coming back to where I became a man. If anybody takes it personally more than me, I’d like to see them. This is not just Auburn, this is my home. This where I grew up, where I played, where I became a man, developed friends.
”This is the house that I helped build. So it’s personal.”
Pelton spent two seasons on Chizik’s staff at Iowa State. He jumped at the chance to work for him again a few weeks before spring practice, after taking the same position at Louisiana Lafayette in January.
He answered a call marked ”private caller,” and it was Chizik.
”So I’m like, ‘Oh good. I’m going to come interview,”’ Pelton said. ”I got all my interview stuff ready and basically he offered me the job. It all goes back to those days of knowing each other, knowing my work ethic, being here at Auburn. Me and my wife talked it over. It was never any question with me. But me being married, you’ve got to clear some things with your wife. I was just tickled to death to come back.”