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October 6, 2009

Tide's defensive hopes center on McClain

TUSCALOOSA _ When University of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain was lying in bed Saturday night, or wherever he reflects on games and the day's happenings, the junior wasn't going over what went well during the 38-20 victory at Kentucky.

He wasn't replaying in his mind the interception, the tip for another pickoff, knocking the ball out while tackling running back Derrick Locke to sophomore linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who went 45 yards for a backbreaking touchdown, or any of the 12 tackles.

McClain was dwelling on the two missed tackles, including a short pass that Locke turned into an 18-yard gain to help set up the Wildcats' first field goal, and two "mental mistakes" that were eating away at him. Those are the kinds of things that keep him up at night.

"And I just beat myself up over it," McClain said, later adding: "No such thing as a perfect game in my mind, unless I make every play, defeat every block and make every tackle."

Perhaps the postgame accolades have helped ease the angst this week as the No. 3 Crimson Tide prepares for its SEC Western Division showdown at No. 20 Ole Miss. Not only was he named the defensive player of the week by the coaching staff (sharing it with senior linebacker Cory Reamer) and Southeastern Conference, but the Football Writers Association of America/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week on Tuesday.

Consequently, McClain is a candidate for the 2009 Bronko Nagurski Trophy for best defensive player in college football. The previous players of the week were B.W. Webb of William & Mary, Nate Triplett of Minnesota, Donald Butler of Washington, and Pat Angerer of Iowa.

"He is very smart," Coach Nick Saban said. "He's got great knowledge and understanding of football. He's got great knowledge and understanding of what we do. He does a great job of implementing it in a game, in terms of his performance as well as the leadership that he provides for others. He's got good ability. He's got the skill to execute the things we need him to do at his position. He is a very motivated guy. He's got a tremendous desire to succeed and be as good as he can be and he's got the discipline to carry it out and usually plays his best in the biggest games. That is always something you like to see in great players."

Said the coach of this week's opponent, Houston Nutt of Ole Miss: "He gets to the ball carrier and he arrives in a bad mood every time I see him. What a playmaker. Then he intercepts a ball and looks like a big-time fullback running the ball. You can just tell that those guys are having fun playing the game. Without being there, you feel like Rolando is the heartbeat of their team. He brings a lot of energy."

While the National Football League waits for him (McClain says he's not even thinking about it yet), the former four-star product out of Decatur has made believers out of even the staunchest critics. Yes, at 6-foot-4 he really weighs 258 pounds, and the last time McClain checked his body it was at nine percent. His 40 speed this past summer was 4.59 (to go with a 4.63).

"It's a little bit of everything," he said. "A lot of guys have size, a lot of guys have speed. But when you put it all together and you can watch film, dissect plays and know what runs they have in each formation, it makes you a lot better.

"I expect myself to make plays, but sometimes I don't see how I made some plays, how I got off this block, I just have to give all the credit to Coach Saban. He's made me what I am. He's pushed me to be a better player. I thank him for it."

Actually, their relationship is a little unusual in that Saban almost never yells at his defensive leader, who has 204 career tackles to go with 21 tackles for loss, six sacks and four interceptions.

"When I first got in he was always yelling, like the first week or so, and then he just stopped," McClain said. "I didn't understand why, and then he took me to his office one day and talked to me and said, 'It's hard for me to yell at you.'"

Why?

"Because I beat myself up so bad 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."

For the rest of the season, the Tide's defensive hopes figure to center on McClain, who was a semifinalist last year for the Butkus Award for the nation's best linebacker but is now without his partner in pain, sophomore Dont'a Hightower (knee).

Last week, Reamer filled in at weakside linebacker and was fundamentally sound, but the Tide is exploring having a little more size there and is giving long looks to true freshmen Nico Johnson or Tana Patrick in practices, with sophomore Jerrell Harris waiting for his eligibility to be restored next week.

"My role can't change, really," McClain said. "I just have to step up my play."


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