Colby Wooden had never experienced a losing season in his life, at least not until last fall.
Auburn’s 6-7 campaign, which saw the team lose five straight games to end the season, marked the program’s first loss since 2012. It’s been a tough season for Wooden and many of his teammates to endure.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Wooden said.
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After this season, Brian Harsin’s first as the Tigers’ head coach, Auburn saw a significant change in both its roster and coaching staff. Nineteen players transferred from the program after the season and the staff was reshuffled, all part of a tumultuous offseason that cast uncertainty over the direction of the program.
Wooden was one of a trio of Auburn linebackers who considered leaving, not through the transfer portal, but to declare early for the NFL draft. Wooden, tight end Derrick Hall and linebacker Owen Papow weighed their options but ultimately opted to return for one more season on the Plains — a chance to improve their stock individually as well as a buy-back opportunity for the program.
“It’s just a work in progress, man,” Pappu said. “We didn’t mean to go out like this, really bro. Personally, I’m tired of losing and that’s the message we all preach to the team. We want to go out and make a difference this year, so we go into this season with a chip on our shoulder.”
For Pappoe, the solution was simpler. He has been a starter at linebacker since the first game of his freshman season, and entered last year as a potential early round pick in the NFL Draft. Those hopes were dashed, however, as he dealt with an injury that sidelined him for all but five games and required postseason surgery to fix.
Hall seriously considered retiring for the NFL after putting together a second-team All-SEC campaign as a junior. He led Auburn in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (nine), putting together the best pass-rushing season the program has seen since Jeff Holland in 2017. Hall was so convinced he was NFL-bound that after Auburn’s quadruple overtime loss to Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl, he told his mother he planned to declare for the draft.
Hall reconsidered before ever making a public announcement, and ultimately chose to return for his senior year in part because he wanted to finish his degree.
“That was my biggest thing, the education,” Hall said at SEC Media Days. “The next biggest thing was why would I drop out and miss out on a college experience? Because you never get it back. Just to be able to play with my brothers one more time and put in the hard work and guts and endurance and blood and sweat and tears one more time — that was a big thing for me, too.
“You know, I love Auburn and Auburn sure loved me…. Auburn is a very special place, so I wanted to come back and do it one more time. If I had to make the decision again, I would definitely come back in 2022.”
It’s a sentiment Wooden echoed after the first day of fall practice on Friday. The 6-foot-5, 284-pounder was spent, exhausted from the first practice under the brutal August sun, but the exhaustion was worth it, he thought. It’s all part of the process and the goal after choosing to return for his senior season.
Wooden finished his junior season with 61 tackles, 8.5 for loss, five sacks, seven quarterback sacks and a blocked field goal, but the personal accomplishments were overshadowed by the team’s 6-7 record. So after weighing his future, he chose to go back to take a long look in the mirror and ask himself what he needs to do better, not only to improve his bench, but also to help Auburn rebuild and avoid another disappointing season.
“I had to go back to the drawing board,” Wooden said. “…I feel like this team can go so far and do so much. We owe it to Auburn. Auburn, do you see it? We haven’t been to an SEC Championship (and won) since 2013. We owe it to Auburn. And I’m graduating in December so I want to go out with a bang… We just need to close the deal. That’s generally speaking. Complete the deal.
It’s a steep mountain to climb for the program, which was counted out by many prognosticators and outside observers. The Tigers were projected to finish last in the SEC West this season for the first time since 1999 and just the second time since the league split into two divisions in 1992. Combine that with the optics of a tumultuous offseason and questions of who will take over at quarterback, and it’s understandable why the outside expectations for the program are where they are.
The players tried to silence that noise, even though they know they still have something to prove after last season’s disappointment.
“I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen, man,” Pappoe said. “Things feel different this year, really.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.