'In between' player ready to step up

A bit of smart planning last August means the Tide equipment managers have saved themselves some time this week. When it came time to assign lockers, they placed Greg McLain in just the right spot.

"I've always been right next to the tight ends in the locker room," Greg McLain explained. "I'm actually in between the tight ends and the running backs."

Given that he started the year as a fullback, moved to the ‘F' position (a combination fullback/weakside tight end) and is now Bama's only completely healthy tight end, that was fortunate planning. "I'm in the middle between the tight ends and running backs," McLain said. "Working exclusively at tight end won't be a big transition. I've just got to learn the plays for the strongside."

Like the rest of its up-front blockers, Alabama's tight ends have been hit hard by injury. Starter David Cavan, who has been hampered all year with a broken hand, suffered what could be a season-ending knee injury Saturday. Cavan's ultimate prognosis probably won't be known till Tuesday. Clint Johnson, the Tide's first reserve at both tight end and ‘F' back for most of the season, sat out Saturday's game with a pinched nerve. Johnston's status at this point is uncertain.

Though he can catch the ball, Donald Clarke's main value to the team is as a blocker.

When Cavan went out Saturday, Donald Clarke and McLain were thrown into action.

Tide Head Coach Mike Shula talked about the two. "They've waited their turn, and both guys have had playing experience. Greg played as a true freshman, and Donald started games last year. We'll ask them to step up again and play. They'll get more reps in practice and will hopefully be better because of it."

Clarke actually started six games last season, but for most of this year he has been a little-used reserve off the bench. A blocking specialist, Clarke now assumes the starting role at strongside tight end. "Sometimes thing just work out that way," Clarke said. "You can't predict injuries; they just happen. I've got to be ready to contribute the rest of our games."

After finally recovering from pre-season concussion problems, McLain had been gradually seeing more action the past few weeks. Suddenly, he's a vital cog in the offense.

"A couple of our guys are down now," McLain said. "I've got to step up and play the role of a true tight end. I took several snaps Saturday, and I felt fine. But playing a true tight end is something different from being in the backfield playing an ‘F' (combination fullback, weakside tight end). I've got to contribute."

Shorter and faster than Clarke, McLain is more suited to the traditional weakside tight end role of blocking and receiving. "(Learning strongside plays) won't be a hard adjustment," McLain said. "I've been playing weakside tight end, so it won't be a big change at all. I've just got to learn the plays."

Two weeks ago it was Wesley Britt who was lost for the season with a broken leg. Now Cavan may be gone. But as Shula pointed out, that's just football. "Again, we had different guys playing," he said. "At times (on offense) we had four different guys in the game that had not been in there in the past with Danny Martz at right guard, Atlas Herrion at left tackle and Clarke and McLain. But all those guys came in and produced."

According to Shula, working two new players at tight end won't affect Bama's schemes. "We changed a couple of things, but not too much," he said. "Greg played like a second tight end. Greg had two catches, and Donald did a nice job blocking."

Johnston could come back, giving the Tide three players to man two different tight end positions. But for now Clarke and McLain are prepared to handle things on their own. "It's me and Donald now, but we hope Clint can come back and play," McLain said. "I'm just happy to be able to contribute to the program. Right now I'm fine and ready to play."

After rolling his ankle late versus Mississippi State, Clarke was held out of Sunday's practice. But he expects to return to practice Tuesday. "We'll see how it goes," Clarke said.

McLain will continue to work as a weakside (receiving) tight end, but he'll also see more action as a blocker.

Linebacker, fullback, defensive end, ‘F' back and now strongside tight end--since arriving on campus in the fall of 2002 McLain has been asked to learn no less than five different positions. Someone obviously forgot to send him the memo about how football players are supposed to be dumb.

"You've just got to be a team player and do what the coaches need you to do," McLain said shaking his head. "I'm willing to help the team in any way."

McClain remarked that at least his concussion problems are now behind him. "I've been in a groove for a couple of weeks now. I'm full speed and ready to go. I'm ready to go out there and bang some guys around and have fun."

Early in the fourth quarter last Saturday with his knee wrapped in ice, David Cavan sat uncomfortably on the portable trainers' table set up behind the Bama bench. Player after player took time to walk over and speak with him briefly, lending a word of encouragement. This will be Cavan's second knee injury of his college career, and McLain was hurting for his teammate.

"I told him to keep his head up," McLain recalled. "Things happen. God's going to take care of you. Don't worry. You can't control stuff like this. It's in God's hands. With me and my concussions--now I'm back playing. You have to just go day by day and be thankful for what you have."

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