AUBURN — The first question of the day for Owen Pappoe couldn’t have been simpler, but it put an ear-to-ear grin on the fourth-year linebacker’s face.
“How are you feeling?”
Understandably, Pappoe was good. Fresh out of pads for the first time in a long time, it had been months since he was on a football field and helming Auburn’s defense.
Last year, Pappoe suffered a leg injury that took him off the field on multiple occasions, keeping him out of eight of Auburn’s 13 games, including its final four. After logging 142 tackles and not missing a game in his first two seasons, Pappoe totaled just 23 stops in five contests in 2021.
The linebacker missed all of spring practice recovering, and Friday marked the first time he was a full go for an Auburn practice since the middle of last season. He made it evident he wasn’t taking it for granted.
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“I’m actually glad it happened in a way,” Pappoe said of his injury. “You hear all the time, when you have former players come to speak and they kind of tell you the game could be taken away from you at any minute. Hearing it, it’s like, ‘OK, let me go hard because there’s people who have been there that wish they could do it again.’ But actually going through it, bro, it’s a whole other feeling.
“It’s given me a whole new appreciation for the game, and it makes me want to go even harder than I ever have before.”
In the second half of Auburn’s 28-20 loss at Penn State, Pappoe left with a leg injury and was out for the next four games, returning for the Tigers’ games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M before being sidelined for the remainder of the season.
“To have that happen to him was heartbreaking,” Auburn defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said Thursday. “Going forward, he’s shifted gears and it has been full speed ahead. He has been standing on the gas. I’m excited to watch him. I’m excited for him to take that next step forward, not only as a player but as a leader.”
In Pappoe’s absence, Auburn’s linebacking corps had a formidable presence in senior linebackers Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten. But Pappoe is the figurehead for the unit heading into 2022, expected to be paired with either Cam Riley or Wesley Steiner as Auburn’s two starting linebackers; a duo that logged time as reserves and special teamers in 2021.
“That’s the quarterback of our defense, you know?” Defensive lineman Colby Wooden said. “I’m excited. I love that guy. He’s my roommate the last three or four years, so having him back is just tremendous.
“He’s a tremendous asset to our defense and he’s going to anchor the middle of the defense as far as getting everybody to line up and what we need to do. So I’m excited for him to make his grand return this whole season. Let’s finish this how we came in.”