Auburn defenders point to ‘unfinished business’ on return after disappointing 2021 season

Auburn defenders point to ‘unfinished business’ on return after disappointing 2021 season

Colby Wooden has never had a losing season in his life, at least not until last fall.

Auburn’s 6-7 campaign, in which the team lost five straight games at the end of the season, marked the program’s first losing record since 2012. It was a difficult season for Wooden and many of his teammates.

“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Wooden said.

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After that season, Bryan Harsin’s first as Tigers head coach, Auburn experienced significant turnover in both the roster and the coaching staff. Nineteen players left the program after the season and staff underwent overhauls, all part of a tumultuous off-season that created uncertainty about the program’s direction.

Wooden was among a trio of Auburn defensemen who were considering not going through the transfer portal but instead declaring themselves for the NFL draft early. Wooden, fullback Derick Hall and linebacker Owen Pappoe all weighed their options, but ultimately settled on another season at the Plains — a chance to improve their stock individually, as well as an opportunity to cash in on the program.

“It’s just an unfinished business, man,” Pappoe said. “We really didn’t want to go out like that, bro. Personally, I’m tired of losing and that’s the message we all preached to the team. We want to come out this year and make a difference, so we’re going into this season with a chip on our shoulder.”

For Pappoe, the decision was easier. He’s been a starter at Linebacker since the first game of his freshman season and came in last year as a potential NFL early-round draft pick. However, those hopes were dashed as he dealt with an injury that sidelined him to all but five games and required postseason surgery to correct.

Hall seriously considered leaving 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 destined for the NFL that after Auburn’s four-time overtime loss to Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl, he told his mother he planned to run for the draft.

Hall reconsidered before ever making a public announcement and ultimately decided to return for his senior year, partly because he wanted to finish his studies.

“That was my biggest thing, education,” Hall said at the SEC Media Days. “The next big thing was why should I go and miss out on a college experience? Because you never get that back. Just being able to play with my brothers again and putting in the hard work and courage and tenacity, blood, sweat and tears again – that was a big thing for me too.

“You know, I love Auburn, and Auburn certainly loved me back… Auburn is a very special place, so I wanted to give something back and do it again. If I had to choose again, I would definitely come back in 2022.”

That’s a sentiment Wooden echoed after the first day of fall practice on Friday. The 6-foot-5, 284-pounder was exhausted, exhausted from 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 deciding 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 personal accomplishments were overshadowed by the 6-7 team record. After weighing his future, he decided to return to take a long look in the mirror and ask himself what he needed to do better, not only to improve his draft record, but to help Auburn bounce back to 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 (and won) an SEC championship since 2013. We have Auburn to thank for that. And I’m graduating in December, so I kind of want to go out with a bang… We just have to close the deal. That’s basically it. Close the deal.”

It’s a steep mountain to climb for the program, as many forecasters and outside observers have tallied. The Tigers were predicted to finish bottom 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 visuals of the tumultuous offseason and the questions of who will take over at quarterback, and it’s understandable why outside expectations of the program are where they are.

Players have tried to drown out that noise, despite knowing they still have something to prove after last season’s disappointment.

“I can’t wait to see what happens man,” Pappoe said. “Things feel really different this year.”

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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