AUBURN, Ala. — Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott broke loose on a run to perimeter, dodging Auburn tacklers on his way up the sideline for a huge gain Saturday.
As he sized up a safety, a giant mitt grabbed a hold of his shoulder, followed soon by a massive body on his back, dragging him to the ground.
It was 296-pound tackle Zach Clayton, hustling from the middle of the formation, 30 yards downfield to make the stop.
“It’s phenomenal,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “It’s just great effort. There’s another guy who doesn’t get near the recognition week-in, week-out he deserves. He’s been a real force for us down there inside.”
Unheralded, unsung, underappreciated — pick an adjective and the Tigers have uttered it about Clayton this season.
The senior is 13th on the team in tackles, behind an injured safety and linebacker, both their replacements and three other defensive linemen, including his backup.
But Clayton has been an anchor in the middle, quietly doing the dirty work of taking on double teams while other defenders get most of the publicity.
“I’m perfectly OK with it as long as I’m doing my job to help the defense,” he said.
Clayton’s teammates recognize his contributions, though.
“You know one of those guys that just makes it look easy?” freshman defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker said. “Like, ‘I could do that,’ then you go out there and it’s not that easy? Zach makes the whole thing look easy. …
“He’s a beast. He’s unblockable. Un. Blockable.”
Auburn has a simple rotation at the tackle spot next to standout Nick Fairley. Clayton usually plays first and second down, when teams are more apt to run the ball. Mike Blanc, a bull rusher, replaces him on third downs.
Clayton has done his run-stuffing job well, making 19 tackles this season, including seven for a loss, third-most on the team behind Fairley and rush end Antoine Carter.
He does it with little bluster.
Quiet and mild-mannered, Clayton rarely gets animated on the field.
“He’s not mean talking,” linebacker Craig Stevens said, “but the way he plays is violent.”
The fifth-year senior has never been a spotlight guy. He was a two-star recruit in Auburn’s backyard of Opelika in 2006, the lowest-ranked recruit of the class.
Clayton’s story was the same for his first few years on the Plains: he was a decent backup who was good in spurts, unable to stay healthy enough to stay on the field for long stretches.
But he has shaken the injury bug this season, starting every game at tackle and proving to be a reliable option in the middle of the line, a solid mentor to the newcomers.
“He’s, if not the hardest worker on the D-line — he is one of the people that really earned his right of starting,” Whitaker said. “He is a big brother to me. Every time I’m (fixing to) hit the field, he always says, ‘Hey, I’m watching you. So you better do this, work on this, work on that.’”
Only on rare occasions does Clayton get the spotlight.
His downfield hustle against Ole Miss on Saturday created a situation where he did receive the spotlight.
“That play itself just explains the whole Zach Clayton,” Whitaker said.
“No matter if we’re up by three touchdowns or down by three, Zach is going to be Zach.”
That includes off the field. The day after the game, the Tigers took a night off of practice, using the time to have a Halloween costume contest.
Clayton had a clever getup, wearing a suit that looked like two eggs and adding horns and tail to complete the costume: deviled eggs. He didn’t make it to the finals, though.
Underrated, as usual.
Note: Kick returner Demond Washington earned SEC co-Special Teams Player of the Week honors, while running back Mike Dyer shared the Rookie of the Week award. Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Ole Miss. Dyer ran for a career-high 180 yards.