Colby Wooden lumbered into the auditorium of Auburn’s athletics complex Friday now and slunk into a chair off to the side of the room, a few feet shy of the podium he was set to stand behind.
The defensive lineman sat there for a minute, clearly exhausted after the first day of fall practice as he treated his muscles with a handheld massage gun. After a few moments, Wooden stood up and walked to the podium, leaning on it for support and taking a deep breath before letting out a laugh as he prepared for his first interview of the preseason.
“That sun got the best of me,” Wooden said. “Listen, I done went to California, Texas, Florida — you name it. I’m sorry, Bama heat’s different.”
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The temperatures on Auburn’s practice field Friday crept into the 90s, with the heat index reaching intro triple-digits. It was an oppressive heat that even got the best of Auburn’s veteran players, all of whom are no strangers to this time of year. Those temps held into the late afternoon, when Auburn’s rookies and newcomers took the field for the first time this preseason.
If they weren’t prepared already, Friday provided a wakeup call, as well as a peak of what’s to come over the course of fall camp and throughout the preseason as the Tigers approach their season opener Sept. 3 against Mercer. And if the reality of fall camp wasn’t apparent after Day 1, Wooden had a message for Auburn’s newcomers—including his younger brother, freshman safety Caleb Wooden.
“Oh, the honeymoon phase is over,” Wooden said. “You’re coming to work, big dog. Yeah, everything they recruited you for and all the visions of you getting to be like a Derrick Brown or somebody hard like that, hey, it’s time to work…. Put your hardhat on, grab your hard-pail lunch and go to work.”
Wooden learned that lesson firsthand three years ago, when he arrived as a freshman in 2019. He was a four-star recruit in the Tigers’ 13th-ranked class, and at the time a mere 230 pounds (he’s now 284 heading into his senior years).
He was also, admittedly, not ready for the challenges of fall camp, which he quickly realized while dealing with then-defensive line coach Rodney Garner, a notoriously hard-nosed coach who wasn’t afraid to acclimate freshmen with a tough-love approach .
“That was eye-opening, man,” Wooden said. “But yeah, having G, it definitely taught me a sense of — I believe he toughened me up. Because when I got here, I’d be the first to tell you I was soft as cotton. But learning under him and his tutorage, it definitely got me more physically and mentally ready to play in the SEC. OK, if I can deal with him, come on.”
Now a preseason second-team All-SEC selection, Wooden wasn’t the only veteran to lend some words of wisdom to Auburn’s newcomers as the Tigers opened fall camp Friday.
Sixth-year offensive tackle Austin Troxell, another former four-star prospect, said his best piece of advice to the new players was to be sure to arrive on campus in shape — and get familiar with the playbook ahead of time.
“If you know what to do, you’ve got a shot,” Troxell said. “And if you’re in shape.”
Troxell confirmed that, when he arrived as a freshman in 2017, he was in shape. Being prepared can go a long way. That, and a willingness to put in the requisite hard work.
“It’s real different — especially when you’re getting recruited, they tell you all the good stuff,” fifth-year receiver Shedrick Jackson said. “They pamper you. When you get here, it’s about work. It’s hard work, and I tell them about that all the time — what they can do to get better, how they can handle stuff on a day-to-day, and I think they listen and take it well.”
Things change for players between their recruitment and their first practice. They go from being courted and coveted by coaches to being the bottom of the food chain, needing to prove themselves for a chance to see the field.
That’s not a surprise to most, but it’s a reality that can still take some adjusting to.
“When I was getting recruited, they told me there was going to be days where it was easy, then there was going to be a lot of days of hard work, so it’s expected,” said senior linebacker Owen Pappoe, a former five- star recruit in the 2019 class. “Even talking to some of the older guys who came before, everybody has their own story of, ‘Man, I thought I was going to quit.’ So, everybody has those days. I mean, you put the hard work in now, it’s going to be easy in the fall.”
Just don’t expect an extended honeymoon.
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.