He knows he won’t get the most attention from the fans of Auburn’s 2017 recruiting class because of them. He also knows he doesn’t have the same media buzz around him because of them.
And he’s not worried one bit about it.
“I don’t really care what these people think about me,” Wooten told SEC Country. “I know what type of player I am. Auburn knows what type of player I am. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Wooten knows he has some numbers that are much more important to him than his star rating.
Wooten has one invitation to the prestigious Under Armour All-America Game on New Year’s Day. He had a jaw-dropping 124 tackles to his name as a senior. He also can point to 29 scholarship offers, which include powerhouse names Ohio State, Florida, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Wooten has the ability — and experience — to play multiple positions for Auburn’s defense, which he’ll join in January as an early enrollee. He also can take pride in his county and region Defensive Player of the Year awards, one of which is voted on by head coaches of 20 different high schools.
He also has two huge endorsements from coaches, including a major one from an SEC assistant.
“Y’all can do what you want with those stars,” Shane Queen, head coach of North Cobb (Ga.) High School, told SEC Country. “But I had an SEC linebacker coach tell me that he was the best linebacker he saw in the country. … I would put him against anybody I’ve coached in the last 23 years.”
While other prospects can get caught up in recruiting rankings or what role they’ll play at the next level, Wooten is different. He’s humble but confident after an up-and-down recruiting process that included accolades that heavily outweigh his ratings and a surprising “180” from a school he wanted to attend.
He’s just ready for his chance to break out for the Tigers, whenever and wherever it comes.
“Wherever they want to play me, that’s where I’ll be,” Wooten said. “It’s not really a big deal to me.”
An early start on the edge
Wooten isn’t one of those underrated recruits who just doesn’t have a lot on tape for evaluators. He became a starter as a freshman at North Cobb, which plays in the highest classification level in Georgia.
“When he was 14 years old, he was starting as a freshman against guys like Chuma Edoga from McEachern, who went on to play at USC,” Queen said. “Even at 14 years old, you could tell that, man, this kid was going to be special.”
Wooten’s father, Kelvin, said he knew his son had what it took mentally to play at a high level as a freshman. The linebacker is a film junkie, logging many more hours of tape review than the average player his age.
“He’s been watching film of Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis since he was in middle school,” Kelvin Wooten told SEC Country. “He just tried to get an idea of how they played the game and how they prepped for the game. I would remember going into his room at 2 in the morning, and he’s already watching film of his next opponent. He just understood that getting ready for the game was more mental than it was physical.”
His mental preparation gave him an edge, and the physical gifts soon followed.
“He can really come off the edge,” Queen said. “He’s got very, very good speed. He’s a good athlete. He can play outside. Once he gets his hands on people — especially slots and backs — it’s tough for them to get off that.”
As an energetic edge rusher, Wooten picked up scholarship offers from big-name programs prior to his junior season.
At one point in the process, Wooten thought he knew where he was going. A certain school — Wooten won’t say which one — looked like his destination.
But right before his commitment, everything changed.
“I was ready to commit to a different school, but they just completely 180ed on me,” Wooten said. “It definitely opened up my eyes to a lot of different things. That’s probably the craziest thing that happened to me.”
According to Kelvin Wooten, the turnaround from the particular program was a wake-up call. His son learned firsthand what the recruiting game was really like after that — and he turned it into a positive.
“It made him slow down his process a little bit more and kind of get more engaged with the different coaches,” Kelvin Wooten said. “He wanted to know what they were looking for more, and he wanted to know how he could make an impact for them. I think it made him open his eyes more.”
Those eyes soon led him toward Auburn. He took several unofficial visits to the Plains after his senior season and attended the Tigers’ A-Day Game. Wooten gave a silent commitment to Auburn and officially announced it during halftime of a North Cobb spring scrimmage.
North Cobb's Chandler Wooten (LB) announces verbal commitment to Auburn during halftime of team's spring game pic.twitter.com/VF57sjRPTK
— WarEagleExtra (@wareagleextra) May 13, 2016
Wooten relied on Auburn quarterback Tyler Queen, Shane’s son and his former teammate at North Cobb. The Queens gave him the full scoop on everything Auburn had to offer, without the shine of a recruiting pitch.
“I knew Auburn was big-time, so definitely getting that offer was amazing to me,” Wooten said. “I got it when the old staff was there. So when the new staff got there, they made me a priority. Getting to know coach T-Will and coach Steele and all those guys on the defensive staff, that was a big deal on my recruitment.”
Wooten locked down his future home. But where he’d play on the football field was about to change.
Moving to the middle
As Wooten headed into his senior season, North Cobb needed him to change positions. Queen and the coaching staff wanted him to play inside linebacker, something he had never done before.
“I just found that, especially in high school, when you play a guy outside, teams can run away from you and push you into the boundary,” Queen said. “They get you where they want you and then run away from you. On the inside, teams weren’t allowed to do that.”
With Wooten playing on the inside, teams wouldn’t be able to avoid him. Even though he became a coveted SEC recruit with his work on the edge, Wooten embraced the opportunity to help his team in a new way.
“Playing inside was something new to me, but that’s what my team needed me to do,” Wooten said. “There were a lot of growing pains. I had to get used to taking on blocks every play.”
After the adjustment, Wooten became a tackle magnet. According to Queen, Wooten rarely played in the second halves of North Cobb’s big wins — and there were quite a few of those in the Warriors’ 10-3 campaign.
He still finished with a team-high 124 tackles.
By playing inside as a senior, he further impressed his future coaching staff at Auburn. Linebackers coach Williams stressed the importance of his unit being able to switch jobs during the regular season. With Wooten, the Tigers have another linebacker who is used to doing that.
“I think one good thing the coaches like there at Auburn is his versatility,” Queen said. “I think he’s athletic enough to play outside and defend in space and cover the back side and defend slots. He can defend in coverage, and he’s also big enough and he’s physical enough where he can play inside.”
When asked to describe what kind of linebacker he is for interested Auburn fans, Wooten focused on that one word: versatile.
“I’m very versatile,” Wooten said. “I can do a lot of different things. I bring a lot of things — inside, outside. I can drop into coverage and rush the passer. I’m very versatile.”
Wooten said he doesn’t know for sure whether the Tigers will start him on the inside or the outside when he enrolls in January. But he understands the rotational nature of Williams’ philosophy at linebacker, so his experience at both spots makes him a natural fit with the program.
“That’s what I’ve been working on,” Wooten said. “I think being with coach T-Will, he can teach me a lot of things — not only on the inside but on the outside as well.”
‘I know you have more inside of you’
A few weeks into his senior season at North Cobb, Wooten got the call of a lifetime.
While some of the recruiting services slept on Wooten’s talents, the Under Armour All-America Game saw him as one of the nation’s best players.
Wooten received his Under Armour All-America Game jersey in September during a celebration at North Cobb. Surrounded by family, friends and teammates, Wooten became the first player in North Cobb’s history to head to the prestigious contest.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” Wooten said. “When I got that message that they had selected me to be an All-American, that was the proudest moment of my football career. It’s definitely an honor.”
But Wooten knew his work wasn’t done after getting the invitation. The Warriors still had two months of the season left to play, and he was determined to keep growing as a player.
“That’s what I love about Chandler Wooten,” Queen said. “He’s the same as he was a freshman coming in. He’s hungry. Playing in the Under Armour game and committing early, sometimes guys get complacent. But he’s just as hungry as he was when he was a 14-year-old freshman. He hasn’t changed.
“You can put a workout on the board and leave for two days, but Chandler isn’t going to miss a rep. He’s very coachable. If you put all the intangibles you want in a football player on a list, he’d be a 9 or a 10 in all of them. His work ethic, his character, his leadership — you name it — he ranks right up there with the best of them.”
Wooten had motivation to keep pushing from his current coaches and his future ones.
He said whenever Williams talked to him during his senior season, he got a sneak peek of the coaching he would get at Auburn.
“He always saw more in me,” Wooten said. “Every time he saw one of my tapes, he’d tell me, ‘I know you have more inside of you. I want to see you bring it next week.’ Every time he watched me play, he pointed out what I did right and what I did wrong, as if I was already at Auburn. He always wanted me to do more.”
Wooten grew as an all-around linebacker and led North Cobb to its first Class AAAAAAA quarterfinal berth since 2012. The Warriors allowed more than 26 points once the entire season, when they fell to eventual state runner-up Roswell.
“One of the things that I always tell him is that everybody wants to win but not everybody prepares to win,” Kelvin Wooten said. “He understands that concept well. To see the work he’s put in over the last seven years playing football and to be rewarded for his efforts, I was extremely proud of him this season.”
Welcome to the family
Whenever Wooten talks about what led him to Auburn, he goes to an often-used phrase on the Plains.
“It’s family. You don’t get that feeling anywhere else,” Wooten said. “The atmosphere you get at Auburn on game day, the academics that comes along with the football side of the things. It was too much to match for everyone else.”
Last week, Wooten officially became a member of that family when he signed his national letter of intent to Auburn.
— Chandler Wooten (@ItsMeWootang) December 15, 2016
Wooten won’t attend bowl practices this week like other early 2017 enrollees including Malcolm Askew, K.J. Britt and Jarrett Stidham. He’s got an All-America game to play.
But Wooten, ever the careful planner, decided early in his junior year he was interested in enrolling early at whichever school he decided to attend. In a few days, he’ll make that a reality by graduating from North Cobb a semester ahead of schedule.
“I want to get a jump-start on working out and getting my grades and academics going,” Wooten said. “I’ve got a lot of things planned. I’ve got a lot of things in store for my future. I’m looking forward to it.”
— Chandler Wooten (@ItsMeWootang) December 11, 2016
For Wooten and his family, enrolling early at Auburn is about more than football.
“He gets to actually get on campus and get an understanding of what it is to go through the day-to-day rigors of playing football in the SEC — preparing on a daily basis, going to meetings, going to class, going to tutoring, meeting with your academic guides and getting an overall view of campus life,” Kelvin Wooten said. “You already have that under your belt. Whenever you get to fall practice, you already have a leg up.
“It’s a win-win situation for him. I think he’s mature enough to handle it. He’s prepared for it. He recognized at the beginning of his junior year that it was something he wanted to do, so he prepared to take advantage of it.”
Some recruits struggle with the early jump to college football — even the ultra-talented blue-chip stars.
That shouldn’t be the case for Wooten, the versatile hidden gem of Auburn’s 2017 recruiting class. He’s been ahead of the curve for his entire football career, even if the recruiting services didn’t always see it.
“Chandler has always been a year or two in front of his peers from a maturity standpoint,” Queen said. “Auburn is getting a great one. I know when he gets his chance to get on the field, he’ll show that it doesn’t matter how many stars he had by his name.”