Chandler Wooten had ‘probably the best spring’ of any Auburn linebacker
Travis Williams was a little bit nervous. The last thing anyone wants to see during a spring game is an injury, and the linebackers coach saw one of his players suffer one that looked like it could be serious.
Chandler Wooten got caught up in a pile after ranging to his right to chase down Harold Joiner during the second quarter of Auburn’s April 13 A-Day game and immediately grabbed his right knee. The junior linebacker appeared to be in serious discomfort as trainers tended to him and teammates knelt around him on the field. He put very little weight on that leg as he was helped to the locker room.
Head coach Gus Malzahn didn’t have an update after the game, other than “hopefully that’ll be OK.”
Turns out, it is. Wooten did suffer a knee injury, but only a minor one — he’s already back working out and “doing really good” less than six weeks later, Williams told reporters Thursday before speaking to the Montgomery Auburn Club at Wynlakes Golf and Country Club.
That’s really good news for the Tigers. Because in a new-look group of linebackers headlined by Wooten, K.J. Britt, Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe, Williams said the junior out of Acworth, Georgia, “had probably the best spring” of all of them.
“This is Year 3, and a lot of times Year 3 is when that light bulb just clicks,” Williams said. “Just his whole mindset and going about his business is just — he just flipped a switch. Now the game is slowing down for him. I’m very, very pleased with his progress.”
Wooten’s spring ascension was relatively quiet. Sift through the myriad comments made by head coach Gus Malzahn and players throughout the spring, and Wooten’s name doesn’t come up much. There was a lot of talk about the linebacking corps, of course — Auburn is replacing three departed senior starters in Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montvaious Atkinson — but most of it was focused on the other three:
Britt, the player expected to slide into the emotional and vocal leader role last held by Davis; McClain, the undersized-but-quick sophomore in the mold of his position coach; and Pappoe, the five-star true freshman who drew rave reviews as an early enrollee.
But maybe Wooten is OK with that. A few weeks before A-Day, he was brought into the auditorium inside Auburn’s athletics complex and asked the question that has surrounded those linebackers since the end of the 2018 season: “You’re kind of the question mark of the defense, even though K.J. was saying the other day that he doesn’t see the question mark, but everyone else sees that because you lost so many guys. So what’s the goal for you guys?”
He paused and smiled almost knowingly before he answered.
“Just to get better,” Wooten said. “We don’t really have any returning starters. I actually feel like that gives us an advantage, because everybody doesn’t know what we have to offer. I just feel like, right now, we’re going to move silent, but just worry about our business, carry on and continue to get better each and every day.”
Williams and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele agree that Wooten, individually, has been doing that since the latter part of last season. Auburn often eschews the Sam, or strongside linebacker, in favor of the Star, or nickelback, but when the Tigers did have a Sam linebacker on the field last season, Williams said it was Wooten.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound former three-star recruit out of North Cobb High totaled 10 tackles in nine games in 2018 and has 18 over 17 games in his two-year career. This season, Wooten is expected to split time with Britt at Mack, or Auburn’s middle linebacker spot.
“Him and KJ are battling it out. Both guys will play,” Williams said. “I like to rotate my guys and keep them fresh, because if they’re tired in the fourth quarter — shoot, it ain’t worth a crap if you’re tired in the fourth quarter, so rotate them as much as possible. They played a lot last year, because I knew this day was going to come.”
Wooten did, too, but he’s not taking his new role for granted. During his post-spring meeting with the coaching staff, Williams said he told him, “You did really well. This is what you did well, this is what you need to work on.”
He looked right back at his coach and said, “Coach, keep coaching me hard,” Williams recalled. “Coach, don’t let up.”
“I said, ‘You know me better than that,’” Williams said. “This kid here, he’s doing everything right. He’s locked in.”