AUBURN — Kevin Steele and his staff have never had any trouble coming up with nicknames for players on Auburn’s defense.
Some are easy, like defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant and safety Smoke Monday, who are listed that way on the team’s official roster. Some follow players from high school, like “Freak” for linebacker Owen Pappoe.
Some have to be created. Defensive lineman Nick Coe became “Pickle” a few years ago after Steele said he ate about eight of them during a break in practice. Linebacker K.J. Britt became “Downhill Britt” because of his physicality against the run. Dinson started calling nickelback and punt return Christian Tutt “Sweet Feet” this season.
Linebacker Zakoby McClain’s earned the nickname “Jackrabbit” because of the way he played on the field.
“I can tell you this: He’ll explode into a ballcarrier when he tackles you,” McClain’s coach at Valdosta (Ga.), High School, Alan Rodemaker, told the Montgomery Advertiser. “He comes up out of his shoes, out of his feet. I assume that’s why Coach Steele and T-Will (linebackers coach Travis Williams) started calling him that.”
But that last nickname has gone through an evolution recently. The sophomore linebacker is now “Ricochet Rabbit” — or, if you want to go by his Twitter account, “RickAshay Rabbit” — like the cartoon sheriff from "The Magilla Gorilla Show."
The real Ricochet Rabbit bounced off the walls yelling, “ping-ping-ping!” McClain may have cemented the nickname because of the way he’s made the ball bounce Auburn’s way in recent weeks.
Two weeks ago, against Samford, it was McClain who forced the ricochet. The Bulldogs faced third-and-six from their own 29-yard line on a rainy day at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Quarterback Chris Oladokun ran straight up the middle on a draw and the sophomore med him there, putting his helmet right on the ball tucked in the runner’s right arm.
The ball flew about 10 feet into the air before falling right into the outstretched arms of cornerback Roger McCreary, who returned it inside the red zone. Auburn’s offense scored a touchdown three plays later.
In Saturday’s Iron Bowl, it was McClain who benefited from the ricochet. Alabama faced first-and-goal from the 2-yard line after an Auburn penalty in a game that had already flown off the rails at that point. The Crimson Tide led 31-30 with 6:47 left in the third quarter.
Quarterback Mac Jones faked a handoff to running back Najee Harris, who broke into the flat and began running toward the pylon in the front right corner of the end zone. The plan was to roll right and hit him there.
But pressure from Bryant blew up the play before it could unfold. Jones, trying to avoid the sack, threw the ball before Harris turned around to look for it. The ball bounced off him and right into the waiting arms of a trailing McClain, who caught it right at the goal line.
“I was just surprised I had it,” McClain said.
The linebacker turned upfield and immediately took off sprinting down the left sideline. He figured, eventually, one of Alabama’s standout wide receivers would catch up to him and take him down, but none of them were on the field — the offense was lined up in a jumbo set, all offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs with Jones. Harris tried his best to chase McClain down, but he never got closer than 5 yards behind him.
Ricochet Rabbit is the fastest sheriff in the West, after all.
And it might not have mattered if Harris had been able to get closer. McClain had a convoy with him throughout his 100-yard interception return. Britt and Chandler Wooten behind him, and Bryant, Pappoe and Marlon Davidson to his right. The only player that caught up to him was teammate Noah Igbinoghene, who also competes for the university’s track and field team. He was the first to tackle McClain in the back corner of the opposite end zone, the one directly in front of thousands of Auburn students jumping up and down, waving their shakers and creating a deafening roar.
“They said, ‘We're legendary.’ They said, ‘You broke a record.’ Screaming,” McClain said of his teammates’ reaction. “I was tired. I was tired at about the 20. But I did that.”
Rodemaker didn’t see McClain’s pick-six live. He was actually outside his house grilling when his wife yelled to him from the other room. He ran back inside to see No. 35 streaking down the field.
That’s usually all Rodemaker is looking for when he turns on Auburn’s games every Saturday; that No. 35 jersey on defense. He saw it more and more as his former player’s sophomore season went on.
The interception was just one of the plays McClain made on Saturday. He also recorded 11 tackles and a tackle for loss in Auburn’s 48-45 win over Alabama. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week and the Athlon Sports National Defensive Player of the Week.
“It’s just really neat to see a guy that you spent so much time with and worked so hard with,” Rodemaker said. “Zakoby came to work every single day."