Return would be good news

There's been one piece of good news this week on the health front. Severely limited the past several weeks with a badly jammed big toe, Le' Ron McClain was bouncing around the practice fields this week.

"Just based on this week's practices, he's probably been as close to 100 percent as he's been in a long time," Tide Head Coach Mike Shula said of McClain. "Along with that he's had more reps with the offense, which gives him a chance to go out there (Saturday)."

A bruising blocker, Le'Ron McClain has Bama's only rush by a fullback this year. He's also caught two passes for 35 yards.

That his toe is healing is good news enough, but add to that the possibility that he could play a role on offense and McClain is positively ecstatic. "I feel pretty good," McClain said. "The injury has got to be 99.99 percent.

"I hope I can get into the game on offense, but that depends on Coach Shula and Coach (Sparky) Woods. They've got to be able to trust me again, coming back from injury. But if I get in there, I'm going 110 percent all the way."

Really the only genuine fullback on the squad, McClain's absence has hampered Bama's offensive efficiency. Shula commented, "He's a guy that has played, then got injured, now we're trying to get him back in there. Le'Ron has practiced, but he hasn't taken every rep. He wasn't the starter to begin with, so it's hard to get him back in there."

McClain had just begun to create a legitimate role for himself on offense when he injured his toe. It happened at the very end of a pass catch/determined run by the fullback. "The big thing with him is (the injury) has hurt his practice time," Running Backs Coach Sparky Woods said, explaining McClain's slow return to the lineup. "He's been out of practice a lot. He's got three days this week to gain more confidence."

From Shula's perspective at least, that mission has been accomplished. "Le'Ron's had better work so far these three days than he had last week," Shula said. "He looks like he's practicing with more confidence. He feels better about what he's doing and his assignments."

McClain was late qualifying, which set him back. Then his toe injury knocked him backwards yet again. But he says he's healthy now.

McClain has seen limited action in recent games as a protector on extra-point attempts. But his real value to the Tide should come on offense. Rated among the top two or three fullback prospects in the nation last year, Alabama needs a healthy McClain participating on offense.

"I've been taking reps with the offense ever since Arkansas week," McClain related. "(During practice) I get reps with the 3s and the 2s. The last couple of weeks I've been working with the 2s. Me and Josh Smith have been splitting time."

Shula promised earlier in the week that if McClain turned in "three good days this week, physically, mentally and knowing what to do," then they would definitely play him on offense. But as Woods explained, it's not just a matter of McClain learning his pass routes and who to block. Quarterback Brodie Croyle continues to nurse an injured shoulder, so pass protection--more specifically blitz protection--becomes crucial.

"We've got to protect our quarterback," Woods said. "We've got to do that. And we've got to run-block for our halfbacks. Le'Ron has got to demonstrate in practice that he can do both."

Shula talked about the fullback's role in protecting the passer. "A lot goes into that. Le'Ron is obviously a big guy, and you like to have big guys for pass protection against blitzing linebackers and safeties. But he's also got to be quick enough to move.

McClain is a powerful athlete, unafraid of the physical play required of a lead blocker.

"First of all you've got to know who to block. The defense moves guys around. Then you've got to be quick enough to adjust as they adjust."

McClain's sore toe probably won't heal completely until after the season. But in the meantime he's ready to go. "I'm hobbling a little bit," he acknowledged, "but I'm going to be okay. It's back to close to 100 percent, though. Things are going very good."

If McClain is both healthy and practiced, Woods intends to use him against Tennessee.

"Coming off that injury he's tried to come back a little bit hurt, so it's been a maturation process for him," Woods said. "But we're not taking him to the game as a cheerleader. We expect to play him somewhere--get him in the game.

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