AUBURN — Owen Pappoe used to bug the crap out of Travis Williams.
It wasn’t because the freshman linebacker was late to meetings or making mistakes in practice or anything like that. It never would have been that — not with Pappoe.
No, he was bugging Auburn’s linebackers coach because he wanted to do more work, watch more film and ask more questions. And when Williams left campus to recruit, all Pappoe wanted to know was when he would be back so he could pick his brain some more.
“I used to meet with Coach T-Will like five times a week just to get everything down, because I wanted to come in and make an impact, but really, just taking everything seriously,” Pappoe said after Auburn’s 20-14 win over Ole Miss this past Saturday. “I ain’t want to just be dead weight, just sitting on the sideline, so I made sure I picked up everything as fast as I could.”
Williams said he had seen that before from true freshmen, particularly when they enroll in school early like Pappoe did at Auburn. It often fades away, though.
“He'll start, 'Oh, I've got class, I've got this,’” the fourth-year assistant said over the summer.
But it never faded away with Pappoe.
Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you that’s not a surprise. Him being one of the most disciplined and hardest-working players on Auburn’s roster, even has a true freshman, is par for the course. Him starting the first nine games of his career and totaling 32 tackles, 2 ½ tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries was kind of the expectation.
That’s who Pappoe has always been. There’s a reason people have been calling the 6-foot-1, 219-pound kid from Loganville, Georgia, “Freak” since he was in the seventh grade.
“From being around him and knowing him and watching him work and grow into a young man and an athlete,” Kenyatta Watson told the Montgomery Advertiser this week. “there was never any doubt in my mind that he was going to be playing at this level, this high of a level.”
Watson is the one who “discovered” Pappoe as a football prospect. He’s worn many hats in his career — Grayson High recruiting coordinator and Under Armour All-American Game selection committee member among them — but back then, he was the coach of the Gwinnett Chargers travel youth football program.
His son, Kenyatta II — now a freshman defensive back with Texas — was (and still is) close friends with Pappoe. And every so often, he would come home from school and say, “Dad, you got to see my friend Owen. You got to see him. He’s amazing. He’s an unbelievable athlete.”
The first time he saw Pappoe, the elder Watson thought it was all a joke.
“I was driving Kenyatta to school, and he was like, ‘That’s Owen right there!’” Watson said. “And I’m looking at this kid like, ‘There’s no way that this dorky, goofy-looking kid is who Kenyatta is talking about.’”
That was October of their sixth-grade year. Fast forward to March. Watson was at the middle school watching a three-on-three basketball tournament with his son when he saw what he assumed was an eighth-grader trying to dunk. Only it wasn’t an eighth-grader; it was Pappoe, the “dorky, goofy-looking kid” Watson laughed off a few months earlier.
After the tournament was over, Watson asked Pappoe if he had ever played football before. He hadn’t — he was focused on basketball at that point. Watson went and found Pappoe’s father, Lorenzo, and told him, “Listen, if you allow this kid to play football, he’s going to change your life.”
Pappoe played football for the first time in his life as a seventh-grader, at the Hotbed Classic tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Watson lined him as a defensive end on the first play of the game — “he had the ugliest stance ever,” he said, “like he was in a karate stance” — and Pappoe came off the edge and hit the quarterback. Hard.
He looked over at the sideline in horror. He knew it was a contact sport, but tacking someone he didn’t know that forcefully?
“No,” Watson shouted back at him. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Pappoe, as you probably know by now, went on to become a five-star recruit ranked as the No. 1 outside linebacker and No. 25 player overall nationally. He was the first ninth-grader to be invited to The Opening, Nike’s prestigious recruiting event, and first player ever to go three times. He played in the Under Armour All-America Game. He probably could have gone to just about any Power 5 school he wanted to.
But Pappoe wasn’t interested in being a high-profile recruit. He was only interested in being a high-level football player. He hated the attention so much that he had Watson run his Twitter account until his junior year of high school. He didn’t fully understand how closely the college football world was watching his every move until he tweeted “BOOMER SOONER BABY” as an April Fool’s joke and had to spend the rest of the day reassuring coaches that his recruitment was still open.
“I never really paid attention to the whole five-star thing and all that,” Pappoe said. “I was really like a workhorse; I ain’t really care about all the media and all that boosting me up. I just wanted to stay low, work, do what I had to do.”
The final play of Auburn’s win over Ole Miss on Saturday seems to sum up both Pappoe’s ability and attitude perfectly.
There were 17 seconds remaining. The Rebels had the ball fourth-and-3 from the Tigers’ 35-yard line. The home team was clinging to a six-point lead. Pappoe started out in coverage on wide receiver Jadon Jackson.
But both of Auburn’s ends, Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry, got pressure on quarterback John Rhys Plumlee almost instantly and forced him out of the pocket, rolling toward the left sideline. Pappoe broke off his man and hit him way back at the 43-yard line. Plumlee heaved up a desperation duck, and nickel back Christian Tutt intercepted it to seal the victory.
If you look closely, though, you’ll see that Pappoe had Plumlee’s knee in the dirt before he let go of the ball. The linebacker saw the picture that proved it before he came into the postgame interview room.
“They got to give me the sack on that,” he said.
So the linebacker was asked: Would you rather have the sack, or would you rather let the secondary have the interception, considering that the defense hasn’t had many this season?
“Man,” he said, “whatever’s good for the team.”