Zakoby McClain could’ve been the forgotten man in the Auburn linebackers’ room.
K.J. Britt and Chandler Wooten have both been groomed to be centerpieces of the defense, and vocal leaders in the middle. Owen Pappoe has shined amid the hype ever since the former five-star stepped on campus.
McClain never grabbed as many headlines in the summer or the preseason. He could’ve been passed up, or lost in the shuffle.
But last Saturday, he made an unforgettable play — in an Iron Bowl to remember.
McClain ran back a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Auburn’s thrilling 48-45 win last weekend, and for the sophomore outside linebacker, the big play further proves why he has his place in the powerful linebacker group in the middle of the Auburn defense.
“It means a lot,” McClain said postgame. “It’s the Iron Bowl. It’s a big game. Everybody’s watching.
“It feels amazing.”
McClain was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance. He pulled down 10 tackles including one for loss to go along with his game-changing pick-six in the rivalry game.
He was also named Athlon’s national defensive player of the week.
“Man, I’m so proud of you,” linebackers coach Travis Williams shouted with joy into a video he posted to his Twitter page this week.
Williams has McClain rotating in at the outside linebacker position with Pappoe. Britt and Wooten both rotate at middle linebacker.
Together, the four have made for a fearsome grouping on the Auburn defense. Saturday, though, is when McClain made his best claim to fame yet.
His interception represented a 14-point swing in the third quarter, coming as Auburn trailed 31-30. Alabama’s Mac Jones faked to the fullback on the play, dropping back to pass on first-and-goal from the Auburn 2-yard line. Big Kat Bryant pressured Jones forcing a quick pass, which bounced off the back of Alabama running back Najee Harris and into the hands of McClain right at the goal line.
He sprinted the other way with Britt, Wooten and a cavalry of other Tigers blocking the way as Jordan-Hare Stadium roared.
“I saw the ball hit his back. I caught it, and I was just surprised I had it,” McClain said. “I kept running to the end zone. I didn’t look back either. Just going, going.”
Auburn entered November with only four interceptions in the first eight games, with only three of those credited to the defense as one came on special teams. Two of the seven Auburn had going into the Iron Bowl were picked off of Samford in the team’s tune-up on Nov. 23.
But in the Iron Bowl, Auburn not only pulled down two interceptions, but housed them both. Smoke Monday returned another pick-six in the first half for Auburn.
“It’s big,” McClain said. “We’ve always been talking about turnovers, and we finally got them in a big game.
“I was shocked in my head,” he said of what was going through his mind on the play. “I really don’t know. I really can’t remember it — I was so happy. Just running.”
Running, as Jordan-Hare roared.
Auburn finished its regular season 9-3. The Tigers now await their bowl-game destination, to be decided Sunday after conference championship games are played this Saturday.