Iron Bowl cements Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain’s ‘Ricochet Rabbit’ nickname
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 are obvious — “JD” works for both corner Javaris Davis and safety Jeremiah Dinson.
But 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-6 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. The game was tied, 10-10, less than 16 minutes of game time earlier.
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 the play up 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.
McClain finished the regular season ranked fifth on the team with 48 tackles to go along with 4 ½ tackles for loss, a ½ sack, Saturday’s interception and three forced fumbles, and that’s despite not starting a single game. Britt and Pappoe are talked about the most when it comes to Auburn’s four-man linebacking corps (and deservedly so), but McClain had a standout season in his own right and was named to the Pro Football Focus All-SEC second team on Monday.
“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.”
Rodemaker describes McClain as a funny kid off the field. He watched his press conference after the Iron Bowl and laughed at the linebacker’s honesty when he said he almost ran out of gas trying to take the ball back to the end zone. McClain never got in trouble during high school, he said, even though there’s “plenty of trouble to get in in Valdosta.” Great parents, great family, always did the right thing, hung out with the right crowds.
“We’ve shut down the weight room for 20 minutes and let Zakoby speak and take questions and answers from our kids,” Rodemaker said. “That’s always a highlight for me, because you always see a different kid that comes back than the kid that left. They’re so much more mature when they come back. They’re starting to sound like a coach when they come back and talk to our kids.”
The only problem Rodemaker ever said he had with McClain was that, during his senior year of high school, the linebacker didn’t always practice as hard as his coach wanted him to. He told him that year that, “One day you’ll get it, son. One day you’ll get it.”
This past summer, before the start of his sophomore season at Auburn, McClain texted Rodemaker and said, “Coach, I get it.”
“I texted him back and said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Rodemaker said. “He said, ‘Coach, remember? My senior year, you told me one day, I’d get it.’ I said, ‘OK. So you got it now.’ Coach Steele and T-Will have really been happy with him there. I know he’s an undersized linebacker, but he’s a heck of a good football player, and I think Zakoby will be playing on Sundays one day.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound McClain finished his high school career at Valdosta as a four-star recruit ranked 13th nationally at his position. Rodemaker believes Williams recruited him to Auburn because “I think he saw himself — I know T-Will was an undersized linebacker that flew around and made plays and had no problem doing it at his stature.”
The Tigers’ linebackers coach has described him countless different, but also increasingly creative, ways since he first arrived on campus during the summer before the 2018 season.
“He’s that South Georgia, Valdosta, tough,” Williams said of McClain. “He’ll fight a chainsaw.” “You can tell he played in the backyard and came in with bruises and scrapes and came right back out.” “This kid is as tough as nails.” “If we're doing Tiger Drill, he'll probably be one of the first kids in my room that I call up.” “That dog will bite.” “You can put you put your watch behind him and he’s going to come to work every day.” “If you’re going into an alley fight, I’m taking Zakoby.”
But none of those work as a nickname. “Ricochet Rabbit” does. McClain’s 100-yard pick-six against Alabama — which will forever be part of Iron Bowl lore — may have cemented it.
“It means a lot,” McClain said. “It's the Iron Bowl. It's a big game. Everybody's watching. It feels amazing.”