AUBURN - You've heard about quarterback Cam Newton's heroics with his legs and his arm. You've heard about the defensive line beating up quarterbacks and stuffing South Carolina's running game. You've heard about the emergence of wide receiver Emory Blake.
Phillip Marshall, Senior Ediotor
But you haven't heard much about one player without whom Auburn might well be 2-2 and unhappy instead of 4-0 and dreaming of big things.
Senior safety Zac Etheridge, who beat very long odds to come back from a cracked vertebrae suffered last October, made perhaps the two biggest defensive plays in comeback wins over Clemson and South Carolina.
On second down in overtime, Clemson running back Andre Ellington took a handoff, cut back and, for a moment, seemed surely headed for a game-winning touchdown. But Etheridge, blocked to his knees, fought his way free, got up and made a game-saving stop. Two plays later, Clemson missed a field goal try and Auburn won 27-24.
Last Saturday, South Carolina was driving in the final minute for what, with a two-point conversion, could have been the tying touchdown. Quarterback Connor Shaw lifted a pass for 6-foot-5 receiver Alshon Jeffery in the end zone. Jeffery had the ball in his hands, but a withering hit by Etheridge knocked it loose and Demond Washington made a diving interception to seal Auburn's 35-27 victory.
Etheridge isn't likely to make All-SEC or play in the NFL. In terms of pure talent, he's no more than average among SEC safeties.. But his heart and his will are at the top. That's why he came back from an injury most thought had ended his career. That's why he makes plays like those he made the past two weeks.
He's intelligent, he's tough and he plays with passion and relentless effort. He's the kind of player other players love to call their teammate. He's the kind of players coaches love to coach.
Most of all, Etheridge is a winner.
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