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Bama's McClain has few peers in the middle

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

An NFL general manager was raving recently about the best middle linebacker in college football.

His evaluation went something like this: "He's exactly what everybody in the NFL is looking for. He has great size, great speed, gets to the football and finishes and can also cover. And the best thing about him is that he's the smartest guy on the field."

No, he wasn't referring to Southern California's Rey Maualuga or Ohio State's James Laurinaitis or even Florida's Brandon Spikes.

You won't find him on any NFL draft boards, either, because he's not draft eligible after this season.

Where you will find him, at least every Saturday, is the middle of some SEC team's backfield or on top of a ball-carrier before he crosses the line of scrimmage or in the boundary breaking up a pass.

Alabama sophomore Rolando McClain has a growing fan club these days, even if NFL executive types aren't allowed by league rules to publicly comment about him.

Georgia coach Mark Richt personally congratulated McClain on the field following Alabama's 41-30 win over the Bulldogs last Saturday.

"I wanted to make sure I shook his hand," Richt said. "Any middle linebacker on a defense playing that good has got to have a big impact on the team. Last year, he played as a true freshman and played very well. Now, he's a much more mature man who holds everything together instead of just learning the ropes."

McClain, who started in nine of 13 games as a true freshman in 2007 and earned Freshman All-America honors, says the emergence of massive nose tackle Terrence Cody has made his job that much easier.

"The biggest difference for me this year is the defensive line," said McClain, who leads Alabama with 34 tackles. "They've kept blockers off me, and I've been able to run free and make tackles. It wasn't really like that last year. I mean, we had guys who did their jobs, but not too many people have a Terrence Cody in there, a 365-pound guy who can take on the whole offensive line."

Alabama heads into Saturday's game against Kentucky ranked third nationally in rushing defense. The Crimson Tide are allowing opponents an average of 54 yards per game on the ground and forcing them to throw the ball.

Cody said McClain is being too modest about his role in Alabama's suffocating defensive start.

"You got a guy like Ro behind you, and you don't have to do too much up there," said Cody, who's often times taking on two blockers. "He's going to be on them before you get a chance to find the ball. He's like a blur out there."

A lighter blur, at that.

The 6-4 McClain said he's down to 249 pounds after playing around 260 for much of last season. He said he arrived at Alabama weighing 266 pounds, but that the strength and conditioning staff helped him shed a lot of that weight.

"I can tell a big difference," McClain said. "Last year about this time, I was shot. Mentally, I was still there. But physically, I didn't make some of the plays I should have."

McClain, whom Nick Saban said was one of the most mature true freshmen he's ever been around, was calling all of the defensive signals a year ago. He's taken it a step further this season and learned all of the defensive positions on the field.

That way, he can be a better leader -- both on and off the field.

"Last year, I just wanted to know what my responsibilities were," McClain said. "Now, I know the whole defense, the entire defensive concept, what everybody's supposed to do, and that helps me to get everybody where they're supposed to be.

"I felt like I was a leader last year, but I wasn't as intense as I needed to be. Now, it's every play and every practice. Me and Rashad Johnson take the leadership role on this defense very seriously. There aren't any surprises anymore. We all know what the standard is here."

The other benefit for McClain has been working under a veteran linebacker coach such as Kevin Steele, somebody who's been a head coach before and knows a good linebacker when he sees one. While coaching at Florida State, Steele produced first-round picks Ernie Sims and Lawrence Timmons, as well as Michael Boulware, a finalist for the 2004 Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

"I've been around some (linebackers) who were just as smart and just as talented," Steele said in August when talking about McClain's potential. "But personality-wise, they were just not very outgoing, so they didn't become coaches on the field. Rolando is certainly a coach on the field."

Believe it or not, football wasn't McClain's first love. He really didn't take an interest in football until the ninth grade.

"My first love was basketball. I still love it," said McClain, adding that receiver Mike McCoy was the only one on the team who could hang with him on the court.

McClain still plays a little hoops when he gets the chance.

"Some," he said, "but Coach Saban doesn't really like it."

Of course, if McClain keeps playing at this level, Saban may let him try out for the basketball team.

Then again, probably not.