Ingram won Heisman, but LB McClain is heart and soul of Tide
Alabama's star linebacker obsesses over every mistake, but doesn't make many
Mark Ingram and QB Greg McElroy have both said McClain deserves Heisman
McClain has matured into an on-field extension of Tide head coach Nick Saban
Rolando McClain scanned the patch of Georgia Dome turf in front of him late in the SEC Championship Game and spied trouble. As he almost always does, the Alabama linebacker snuffed out the problem with extreme prejudice.
This time, the potential pitfall wasn't an unexpected screen pass or a tricky play-action fake. McClain saw teammates loitering by the beverage coolers on the sideline and knew they intended to dump the contents of one of those coolers on Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to celebrate Alabama's first SEC title since 1999. He knew what the coach would think about that, so the junior confronted the conspirators.
"I told them if we win the national championship, you can put whatever you want to put on him," McClain told reporters later. "But until then we're not going to drench coach with Gatorade. I dumped the water and the Gatorade out. It wasn't the right time for it."
And why did the rock-solid 258-pounder from Decatur, Ala., presume to know how Saban would react? Because despite their physical differences, McClain and Saban think so much alike that Crimson Tide players swear the men share a brain. "Just picture coach Saban being huge and able to play football," said cornerback Javier Arenas.
Saban, who played defensive back at Kent State, notices the similarities as well. "I'm a perfectionist, and I think he's a perfectionist," Saban said. "He likes to get things right. He likes to have it down pat. He likes to have a great understanding and know how he's expected to implement it during the game, and he's very conscientious about that. I'm the same way."
Jere Adcock, who coached McClain at Decatur High, also sees shades of Saban in McClain. "Coach Saban is not a yakker," Adcock said. "He doesn't talk just to hear himself talk. He doesn't open his mouth unless he's got something to say. ... Rolando is a lot the same way."
Proving Adcock's point, McClain summed up the similarities between himself and his coach in 13 words. "We have a low tolerance," he said, "for guys who don't know what to do."
That's why McClain is able to act as a surrogate for Saban on the field. When sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower tore a ligament in his left knee on Sept. 26 against Arkansas, Saban was forced to switch some players' positions. McClain looked like an orchestra conductor as he made sure each player knew his assignment for the rest of that game. As a result the Crimson Tide held the SEC's top-scoring offense 30 points below its season average in the 35-7 win.
McClain understands the defense so well because he obsesses over every mistake. He always has. "He's his biggest critic," said Adcock. "He's always harder on himself than anybody else." McClain harps so much on his own mistakes that in 2007 Saban -- whose rants can peel paint from the walls -- realized he couldn't possibly rip his freshman star worse than McClain would rip himself. So Saban abandoned the idea of criticizing McClain. Chances were, if McClain did something wrong he would have already noticed the mistake and figured out how to fix it.
Take, for example, Alabama's 22-3 win over then-No. 20 Ole Miss on Oct. 10. The Crimson Tide defenders had every reason to celebrate. They'd held the Rebels' potent offense to 19 first-half yards, and Ole Miss had gained just 212 on the day. Still, two plays nagged at McClain. On one he'd suffered a mental lapse. He got caught watching speedster Dexter McCluster when he should have been watching another Rebel. The result was a completed screen pass for a first down. On another play Ole Miss ran Power -- a play in which a back follows a lead blocker just outside the tackle or tight end -- to the short side of the field. McClain couldn't quite get to the ballcarrier. "It wasn't really my tackle," he said, "but I should have made it."
That day, Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody predicted McClain would wear out a computer watching video to diagnose those two relatively minor mistakes. "He probably watches more than the coaches," Cody said.
Entering the BCS title game against Texas, McClain leads the Tide with 96 tackles, including 12 for loss. Few were bigger than his fourth-quarter rag doll toss of Auburn quarterback Chris Todd in the Iron Bowl, which ended a drive and helped set up the possession that allowed Alabama to escape the Loveliest Village on the Plains with a 26-21 win.
How important is McClain to his team? Just ask Alabama tailback Mark Ingram. In November I asked Ingram which Crimson Tide player other than himself he would back in the Heisman race. Ingram, who would collect the trophy a month later, chose McClain. "It's just the impact he has on our team," Ingram said. "It's not just how he makes the plays, but from a leadership standpoint, he knows everything that's going on with the defense. He knows what the D-line is doing. He knows what the corners are doing. He makes all the calls."
Perhaps Ingram's praise is a condition of the gentleman's agreement he made with McClain concerning their frequent practice-field collisions. "I won't try to kill him every time I hit him," McClain said, "and he won't try to run me over." Ingram isn't alone, though. After Alabama beat LSU on Nov. 7, a television reporter looking for a glowing quote to support Ingram's Heisman candidacy approached Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. "Is there anybody in the country better than number 22?" he asked, referring to Ingram. Without hesitation, McElroy fired back a question of his own. "What about number 25 (McClain)?"
Though McClain was never in serious contention for the Heisman, he did win the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's best linebacker. On Dec. 8 in Tuscaloosa, McClain was ordered to show up in Saban's office for media interviews wearing slacks and a collared shirt. He was surprised to find a smiling Dick Butkus and one very famous trophy. "You think you're a good linebacker," McClain says. "Then Dick Butkus is in the room."
Unlike most boys in Alabama, McClain didn't grow up dreaming of playing football for Alabama or Auburn. He dreamed of playing in the NBA. Even more unusual, when he was a junior in high school, he told a reporter from a Rivals.com fan site that he liked Alabama and Auburn equally. To even think such a thing is blasphemy in a state where, typically, it is decided at birth whether a child will grow up yelling, "Roll Tide!" or "War Eagle!" Still, few would have been brave enough to call out McClain for his ambivalence.
McClain stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 195 pounds when he started in basketball and football as a sophomore for Decatur in 2004. By the time he orally committed to Alabama the summer before his senior season, McClain had grown to 6-4, 240. McClain said he picked Alabama because of the tradition, the facilities and because it was only a two-hour and 15-minute drive from home. He also liked the coaches, who when McClain committed in June 2006, were only a few months away from getting run out of Tuscaloosa.
Even after coach Mike Shula and his staff were fired, McClain didn't waver. When he learned Saban would replace Shula, he was even more certain he'd made the correct choice. At the time Adcock wasn't so sure McClain would remain a linebacker; he imagined a college weight room and training table would combine to morph his star into a defensive end. Adcock, who had visions of a bigger Dwight Freeney terrorizing SEC quarterbacks, said as much in a conversation with the newly hired Saban.
"I think he's going to outgrow linebacker," Adcock told Saban. "I think he's going to be too big."
Saban, according to Adcock, replied: "Now, Coach, I like big linebackers. I like a big guy in the middle."
Adcock: "Well, if you do, you have one."
McClain started eight of 13 games for Saban during the 2007 season. By the end of that year Saban knew he'd found the perfect leader for his 3-4 scheme. Two seasons later McClain has matured into an extension of his coach on the field. Sometimes on the sideline, too.
When McClain saw his teammates ready to douse Saban in the Georgia Dome, he knew a moment's sting of cold Gatorade could result in hours of misery for him and his teammates during the month of practices leading up to the BCS title game. So, as usual, McClain assessed the situation and did exactly what Saban would have done.
But if McClain and his giddy teammates raise the BCS trophy amid a shower of confetti at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7, the delayed celebration will have been well worth the wait.
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