McClain heart and soul of 'Bama's defense

Published: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 4:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 4:36 p.m.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Rolando McClain had already given his pledge to play for Alabama when coach Mike Shula was fired. The hotly recruited linebacker stuck to his word after Nick Saban's hiring.

Why? Because, he said at the time, "I think he can bring a national championship here." Four years later, McClain is a big reason why Saban and the top-ranked Crimson Tide have that chance Thursday night against No. 2 Texas.

He's the unquestioned leader of the nation's top scoring defense, a fast, rangy, powerful 6-foot-4 258-pounder who is savvy enough the coaches seek out his input for difficult defensive challenges.

Against Virginia Tech, McClain offered his suggestions for "ways to keep Tyrod Taylor uncomfortable pressure-wise and quarterback spies and things like that," recalls fellow inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, out with a knee injury.

"That's just something I couldn't ever see because coach Saban knows so much. He's been around so much he just knows the game so well. I don't think there's anybody that knows the game as well as coach Saban does."

McClain comes the closest of anybody on the field for Alabama. He was ailing with a stomach virus on Tuesday and limited in practice. But Saban said his star linebacker and backup defensive back Rod Woodson were better by Wednesday and would go through the afternoon walk-through with the team.

"If they continue to improve, they should be able to participate in the game," Saban said.

That's a big deal for a defense charged with trying to defend players like Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, wide receiver Jordan Shipley and tailback Tre' Newton.

Incidentally, Alabama held the dual-threat Taylor to 65 total yards in that opener with Virginia Tech. While it would be impossible to quantify the impact of McClain's "coaching" in that game or others, it's easier to measure his importance to the Tide's defense against the Longhorns and during the season.

He's the leading tackler, a team captain, an All-American and the Butkus Award winner as college football's best linebacker. Plus, he has mastered Saban's complex schemes and figures to be a central figure in keeping the Tide defense on task Thursday night.

"He literally is the quarterback of the defense," end Lorenzo Washington said. "He gets the front right, he gets the defensive backs right, he gets the linebackers right. And everything starts and ends with him, every play."

The Tide's defense is loaded with All-Americans and NFL prospects, leading the nation in scoring defense and pass defense efficiency and ranking among the top seven in each of the major categories.

There's run-stopping, space-clogging nose guard Terrence Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas — both first-team All-Americans and projected NFL first-round picks. Ball-hawking safety Mark Barron has a Southeastern Conference-leading seven interceptions and was a third-team AP All-American in his first season as a starter.

Then there's mostly unheralded pass rushing threats like end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Eryk Anders, who have combined for 11 sacks.

McClain is the heart of the defense, though. Sometimes it even seems like he's channeling Saban. Both are ultra-focused and intense perfectionists.

"He's just like coach Saban on the field," Hightower said.

McClain was the centerpiece of Saban's first recruiting class, and he's one of the few players who is generally exempt from Saban's tongue lashings. The yelling stopped about a week into McClain's first fall camp in Tuscaloosa.

"It's because I beat myself up so bad," McClain said earlier this season. "When I make a mistake, I'm on myself worse than he can (be). It's hard for him to yell at me when I'm yelling at myself."

McClain spends hours combing through film of opposing offenses. Like Saban, he's more about the big game than the fun and festivities. At Disneyland, he said he didn't even go on any rides but enjoyed the ESPN Zone. Mainly he savors the company.

"Outside of my family, I don't want to be anywhere but with my teammates," McClain said. "I'm always relaxed and casual there."

This could be McClain's final college game. He is considered a first-round NFL lock if he opts to skip his senior season, though McClain has dodged that question.

His position coach, James Willis, calls McClain "a freak of nature" athletically, but also figures the junior has the Saban-like laser focus that will keep the NFL or the awards from being a distraction.

"He's so focused on the game, he doesn't even talk about it," said Willis, a former NFL linebacker. "That's where you understand his maturity level and his whole focus. The whole thing about the Butkus Award, he didn't talk about it. He didn't want to talk about it.

"He wanted to talk about the team. That's why I think he's special."

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