Tide's Number One Is Middle Linebacker

It took Alabama Coach Nick Saban a few moments to mention Number One. No, not the current national college football polls, or a potential BCS spot for his Crimson Tide. Saban was asked about the linebacker situation in his regular Monday press briefing, specifically about how a potential weak spot in pre-season analysis had become a Bama strength.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said the Crimson Tide "had to do some makeshift early on" with the linebacker crew. The key, he said, was true freshman Dont'a Hightower being able to come in and start at weakside linebacker, one of the two inside spots in Bama's 3-4 defense. That enabled Cory Reamer to move to strongside linebacker, one of the outside spots. And former defensive end Brandon Fanney was a perfect fit at the other ousdie spot, jack linebacker.

Saban also mentioned "other guys playing well" to provide depth.

Then he got to Number One.

"Rolando McClain is outstanding," Saban said. McClain, a sophomore, is a leader of the defense playing one of the most critical positions, middle linebacker. He has to be not only a good player, but also the "quarterback" of the defense, getting players in the right position.

"He's a very bright guy," Saban said. "His communication skills are good. We have a lot fewer mental errors."

McClain took over the middle linebacker spot last year as a true freshman. The 6-4, 250-pound sophomore is Alabama's leading tackler this year, having been in on 52 stops for the Tide. He has four tackles for losses totaling 14 yards, six pass break-ups, a quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

No wonder Rolando could say, "I'm playing all right."

He said that his performance against Tennessee, which included four tackles and a broken up pass, "wasn't my best game, but I'm not frustrated, either. I still have much to do." He was selected by the Bama coaching staff as a defensive player of the week for his play against the Vols.

McClain said the defense could do more, too.

He said the Tide hasn't done much blitzing because the front has been getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a base defense. "We practice about 70 plays and play five," he said. "We have a ton of stuff we haven't used. If we do get in a game where we have to blitz, the other team won't have seen them."

McClain echoes his head coach regarding the possibilities for this team. "We aren't worried about Penn State, Texas or anybody else," he said. "We are just worried about the next game and Coach Saban does a good job of keeping us focused. We are just going to keep playing our game, day in and day out.

"We aren't trying to look into the future. If we make it there (SEC or national championship game), we make it there. We are just going to keep playing hard right now.

We are sitting here at 8-0, four games left. It makes you want to keep pushing. We are going to keep on pushing, but we aren't going to look into the future at all and just try to take it day by day."

The middle linebacker has special responsibilities in Alabama's defense. He's the man who gets the defensive call from a coach on the sideline, then gets the team in the right defense for the formation of the opposing offense.

"It was tough when I first got here, but now it's second nature," McClain said.

He explained that he gets a signal from Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart as the defense goes into a huddle. "It can be three plays in one," McClain said. Then when the offense gets to the line of scrimmage, McClain makes the call that fits and yells the call to his teammates. In the secondary, strong safety Rashad Johnson is getting the defensive backs into place. If the offense goes into motion or has a shift that changes the formation, the defense has to make its adjustment. It all occurs in seconds.

"I'm more focused because of that," McClain said.

McClain said he thinks Alabama can be a dominating defense. "We have great coaches and great schemes," he said. "Our defense is so complicated it's hard to pick any weaknesses. We know what we can do. The sky's the limit now."

McClain said, "I knew when we were in pre-season camp that we were going to have a good defense. Probably when I saw what Terrence Cody could do."

McClain doesn't worry about opposing offenses keying on Bama's middle linebacker. He said, "Coach Saban told me that as I get better, it's going to get harder."

It's getting harder for opponents, too.

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