Colby Wooden 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 losing record since 2012. It was a difficult season for Wooden and many of his teammates to endure.
“That was a tough pill to swallow,” Wooden said.
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In the wake of that season, Bryan Harsin’s first as head coach of the Tigers, Auburn saw considerable turnover both on its roster and its coaching staff. Nineteen players transferred out of the program after the season, and the staff was overhauled, all part of a tumultuous offseason that cast uncertainty over the direction of the program.
Wooden was one of a trio of Auburn defenders who considered leaving, not through the transfer portal, but to declare early for the NFL Draft. Wooden, edge defender Derick Hall and linebacker Owen Pappoe all weighed their options but ultimately chose to return for another season on the Plains—a chance to improve their stock individually, as well as an opportunity at redemption for the program.
“It’s just unfinished business, man,” Pappoe said. “We didn’t want to go out like that, for real, bro. Me, personally, I’m tired of losing, and that’s the message we’ve all been preaching to the team. We want to come out and make a difference this year, so we’re going into this season with a chip on our shoulder.”
For Pappoe, the decision was a simpler one. He has been a starter at linebacker since the first game of his freshman season, and he entered last year as a potential early-round NFL Draft pick. Those hopes were dashed, though, as he dealt with an injury that sidelined him for all but five games and required postseason surgery to correct.
Hall seriously considered bolting 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 bound for the NFL that, following Auburn’s quadruple- overtime loss to Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl, he told his mom he planned to declare for the draft.
Hall reconsidered before ever making a public announcement, and he ultimately chose to return for his senior year in part because he wanted to finish his degree.
“That was my biggest thing, education,” Hall said at SEC Media Days. “The next-biggest thing was why would I leave and miss out on a college experience? Because you never get that back. Just being able to play with my brothers one more time and put in the hard work and grit and toughness, the blood, sweat and tears one more time — that was a big thing for me as well.
“You know, I love Auburn, and Auburn has loved me back for sure…. Auburn is a very special place, so I wanted to give back and do it one more time. If I had to make a decision again, I would definitely come back for 2022.”
That’s a sentiment that Wooden echoed after the first day of fall practices 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 felt. 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 a loss, five sacks, seven quarterback hurries and a blocked field goal, but the personal achievements were overshadowed by the 6-7 team record. So, after weighing his future, he chose to return to take a long look in the mirror and ask himself what he needed to do better, not just to improve his draft stock but to help Auburn bounce back 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, you see it. We haven’t been to an SEC championship (and won) since 2013. Like, we owe it to Auburn. And I graduate in December, so I kind of want to go out with a bang…. We’ve just got to finish the deal. That’s basically it. Finish the deal.”
It’s a steep mountain to climb for the program, which has been counted out by many prognosticators and outside observers. The Tigers were predicted 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 the turbulent offseason and questions about who will take over at quarterback, and it’s understandable why outside expectations for the program are where they are.
Players have tried to drown out that noise, although they know they still have something to prove after last season’s disappointment.
“I can’t wait to see what happens, man,” Pappoe said. “Things feel different this year, for real.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.