Auburn quarterbacks point to ‘unfinished business’ as they bounce back from disappointing 2021 season

Auburn quarterbacks point to ‘unfinished business’ as they bounce back from disappointing 2021 season

Colby Wooden has 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 to end the season, was the program’s first losing record since 2012. It’s been a tough season for Wooden and many of his teammates.

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

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After that season, in Brian Harsin’s first tenure as the Tigers’ head coach, Auburn saw significant turnover on both its roster and coaching staff. After the season, 19 players were transferred out of the program and the roster was overhauled, all in a tumultuous offseason that cast doubt on the program’s direction.

Wooden was one of a trio of Auburn quarterbacks who considered leaving instead of going through the transfer portal and declaring early for the NFL Draft. Lumberjack Derrick Hall and linebacker Owen Papo all weighed their options, but ultimately decided to return for another season on the Plains, a chance to improve their stock individually as well as a chance at redemption for the program.

“It’s just unfinished business, man,” Papo said. “We didn’t mean to go out like that, really, bro. Me 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’re getting past the chip on our shoulder this season.”

For Pappo, the decision was simpler. He’s been a starter since the first game of his freshman season, and he 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 turning around 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 passing season the program has seen since Jeff Holland in 2017. After an overtime loss to Alabama in last year’s Iron Bowl, he told his mom he intended to enter the draft.

Hall reconsidered before ever making a public announcement, and he ultimately decided 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 the college experience. Because you’ll never get that back. Just being able to play with my brothers one more time and put in the hard work and grit and grit and blood and sweat and tears one more time, that was a big thing for me too.

“You know, I love Auburn and Auburn has definitely loved me … 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 the sentiment Wooden echoed after the first day of fall practice Friday. The 6-foot-5, 284-pounder was spent, exhausted from the first practice under the harsh August sun, but the fatigue was worth it, he felt. It’s all part of the process and part of the goal after choosing to return for his senior season.

Wooden finished his junior season with 61 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, seven defensive hurries and a sack, but the personal accomplishments were overshadowed by a 6-7 team record. So after weighing his future, he decided to go back to take a long look in the mirror and ask himself what he needed to do better, not just to improve his stamp, 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 (and won) the SEC Championship since 2013. Like, we owe it to Auburn. And I’m graduating in December, so I kind of want to go out … We just have to close the deal. That’s basically it. Complete the transaction.”

That’s a steep mountain to climb for a program that has been 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 hectic offseason and questions about who will take over. quarterback, and it’s understandable why outside expectations for the program are there.

The players have tried to quell the buzz, even though they know they still have something to prove after last season’s disappointment.

“I can’t wait to see what happens, man,” Papo said. “It’s different this year, actually.”

Tom Green is the Alabama Media Group’s Auburn reporter. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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