Colby Wooden has never experienced a losing season in his life, at least not until last fall.
Auburn’s 6-7 season, which saw the team lose five straight games to finish the season, marked the program’s first losing record since 2012. It was a tough season for Wooden and many of his teammates to endure. .
“It was a hard 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 has seen considerable turnover on both his roster and his coaching staff. Nineteen players have been moved off the schedule after the season and the staff has been revised, all part of a tumultuous offseason that has created uncertainty about the direction of the schedule.
Wooden was one of three Auburn defenders who thought they were leaving, not through the transfer portal, but to declare themselves in advance for the NFL Draft. Wood, side defender Derick Hall and linebacker Owen Pappoe all weighed their options, but ultimately chose to return for another season in the plains, an opportunity to improve their actions individually, as well as an opportunity to ransom for the program.
“It’s just pending business, man,” Pappoe said. “We didn’t want to go out like this, really, brother. I, personally, am tired of losing, and this is the message we all preached to the team. We want to go out and make a difference this year, so we’re going to start this season with a chip on our shoulder. “
For Pappoe, the decision was simpler. He has been a regular linebacker since the first game of his freshman season, and entered last year as a potential pick at the start of the NFL Draft. Those hopes were dashed, however, as he faced an injury that set him aside for all but five games and required post-season surgery to correct.
Hall seriously considered escaping for the NFL after organizing a second-team All-SEC campaign as a junior. He led Auburn in losing tackles (12.5) and layoffs (nine), putting together the best season of quick passes the program has seen since Jeff Holland in 2017. Hall was so convinced he was destined for the NFL that , after Auburn’s quadruple overtime loss to Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl, told his mother he was planning to bid for the draft.
Hall reconsidered before making a public announcement and ultimately chose to return for his senior year in part because he wanted to finish his degree.
“This was my biggest thing, education,” Hall told SEC Media Days. “The next biggest thing was why would I leave and miss a college experience? Because you’ll never get it back. Just being able to play with my siblings one more time and put in the hard work, grit and tenacity, the blood, the sweat and the tears again – that was also a big thing for me.
“You know, I love Auburn, and Auburn loved me back for sure … Auburn is a very special place, so I wanted to give it back and do it one more time. If I had to make a decision again, I would definitely come back for 2022. “
This is a sentiment that echoed Wooden after the first day of fall testing on Friday. The 6-foot-5, 284-pound was exhausted, exhausted from the first workout under the brutal August sun, but it was worth it, according to him. He is all part of the process and goal after choosing to return for his senior season.
Wooden ended his junior season with 61 tackles, 8.5 for a loss, five layoffs, seven quarterback hurries and a blocked field goal, but personal results were overshadowed by the team’s 6-7 record. So, after weighing his future, he chose to return to look in the mirror and ask himself what he needed to do better, not only to improve his title, but also to help Auburn recover 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 a SEC championship (and we’ve won) since 2013. For example, 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. This is basically it. Finish the deal. “
It’s a steep mountain to climb for the program, which has been ruled out by many forecasters and outside observers. The Tigers were expected to finish last in the SEC West this season for the first time since 1999 and only the second time since the league split into two divisions in 1992. Combine that with the turbulent offseason optics and questions of who it will take over from the quarterback, and it is understandable why the external expectations for the program are where they are.
The players have tried to muffle that noise, even though they know they still have something to prove after last season’s disappointment.
“Can’t wait to see what happens, mate,” Pappoe said. “Things look different this year, really.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.