Auburn LB Zakoby McClain is becoming a 'household name'
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Zakoby McClain was somewhat confused when defensive coordinator Kevin Steele bestowed a new nickname upon him one day in practice during his freshman season last year.
See, McClain had never heard of Ricochet Rabbit, the cartoon sheriff from the 1960s. The reference made by the 60-year-old Steele was too obscure and too much of a throwback for the young linebacker. It was simply way before his time — but it piqued McClain’s curiosity.
When he got back to his dorm later that day, McClain decided to look it up, and he was instantly captivated.
“I’m just like Ricochet, though,” McClain said. “Ricochet’s fast. It's really a rabbit, but he be moving though, like he be going fast. Fast. It's a compliment.”
Ricochet Rabbit — the original Ricochet Rabbit, that is — was a cartoon sheriff in the town of Hoop ‘n’ Holler during a two-season run on “The Magilla Gorilla Show” from 1964-66. He was known for his speed and ability to bounce off walls, spurring a “ping, ping, ping!” noise
The cartoon may be way before McClain’s time, but the nickname fit the 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker, and it has since stuck. His Instagram and Twitter display names are both variations of the nickname, and linebackers coach Travis Williams made reference to it multiple times during a video he posted to Twitter a couple days after the Iron Bowl, when McClain was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Alabama.
You may remember that game. McClain had a team-high 10 tackles during the 48-45 win, as well as a 100-yard pick-six, setting an Auburn record for longest interception return in an Iron Bowl and matching Walter McFadden’s program record from the 2010 Outback Bowl.
“Coach Steele gave it to him because the way he just bounced around and made plays, just how he's just like a rubber-band man,” linebacker K.J. Britt said. “He gets knocked around, but he's still in the position to make plays. It's pretty impressive. But just — Ricochet Rabbit, that's how Zakoby is.”
That’s not just how McClain is; it’s how he has always been.
There’s a reason why Williams has used a variety of ways to describe McClain’s toughness. He’s “South Georgia tough.” He’ll “fight a chainsaw.” He’s the type of guy Williams has said he would want with him in an alley fight, and the guy who is typically Williams’ first choice to represent Auburn’s linebackers in the team’s one-on-one Tiger Drill — “because that dog right there will bite.”
“You can tell he played in the backyard and came in with bruises and scrapes and came right back out,” Williams said. “The kid is as tough as nails.”
That toughness started to show when McClain first began playing football at 6 years old. As he tells it — and says his father, Willie McClain, can attest — he would hit so hard that he would knock off other kids’ helmets and cause their mouthpieces to pop out. That grit blossomed during McClain’s days at Valdosta (Ga.) High, where he developed into a four-star prospect under coach Alan Rodemaker, who instilled a mindset in him and a willingness to play through the nicks and bruises.
As Britt put it, if he sees McClain down or off the field, he knows it’s something serious.
"I'm just built different,” McClain said. “… You got to be a dog.”
McClain’s toughness was always necessary, especially at his position, where many considered him to be undersized. At just 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, McClain is Auburn’s smallest linebacker on scholarship. His size, he said, is why he never got an offer from the team he cheered for growing up — Florida State.
It’s something McClain has not forgotten, a slight that he has carried as a chip on his shoulder as he continues to make a name (and a nickname) for himself at Auburn. He finished the regular season fifth on the team in total tackles, with 48, including 4.5 for a loss and three forced fumbles — including one against Samford where he made the ball ricochet about 10 feet in the air and into the waiting arms of cornerback Roger McCreary.
“He’s not the biggest linebacker we have,” safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “Ricochet Rabbit, that’s his name. That’s who we call him. A guy that has bad intentions and is going to run to you full speed. He’s a tough guy. I know I’ve been saying it since he came in his freshman year, he’s going to be special. He’s another young guy that put the work in…. His toughness is unexplained. He’s going to run to you full speed no matter how big you are, no matter how strong you are, he’s going to run to you full speed.
“His toughness, man, since a freshman he’s had that bite, been had that dog in him and I’m glad it’s showing.”
Just how different is McClain’s toughness? For starters, his handshake with Britt is simply a headbutt — and that’s without either wearing a helmet. And he insists he actually would fight a chainsaw if necessary.
"I'll fight anything, no matter what it is,” McClain said.
That includes fatigue, which McClain admitted he had to fight during the biggest moment of his career a few weeks back in the Iron Bowl. With Alabama up 31-30 in the third quarter and near the goal line, facing first-and-goal from the 2 following a pass interference call the play prior, quarterback Mac Jones faked a handoff to the Tide’s fullback before edge-rusher Big Kat Bryant pressured him as he attempted a pass to running back Najee Harris in the end zone.
Bryant’s hit on Jones was enough to make the quarterback rush the throw, which got to Harris before he was expecting it. As a result, the ball hit Harris’s back and fell into McClain’s hands in the end zone. McClain corralled the ball and sprinted more than 100 yards the other direction — though he says he ran out of steam near the 30-yard line — for a game-altering pick-six. Suddenly, Auburn led 37-31 courtesy of the 14-point swing.
Teammates mobbed McClain in the end zone, calling him a legend. His family has echoed that descriptor, too. The following Monday, when classes resumed after Thanksgiving break, McClain received more smiles and adoring stares on campus than he can ever recall.
"(The pick-six) changed a lot, because a lot of people know my name now,” McClain said. “Kind of what I wanted.”
After his historic play in the Iron Bowl, they’ll know his nickname, too.
“He's going to be one you hang your hat on, a household name,” Britt said. “He's everything you want in a linebacker.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.