In three years, Rolando McClain went from prized recruit to the nation’s best linebacker.
In a few months, he’ll be a millionaire and a first-round NFL Draft pick.
By announcing his decision to skip his senior season for the riches of professional football, McClain’s legacy with the Crimson Tide is finalized.
And it’s certainly a good one.
In his rise that began a first-game starter, McClain emerged as one of the best linebackers to play in the program known for producing legends from the position.
Move over Cornelius Bennett, Derrick Thomas, Barry Krauss and Woodrow Lowe and make room for the Decatur (Ala.) High School product.
Conley Duncan, an All-SEC linebacker in 1975 from Hartselle, said it isn’t too soon to evaluate his place in Alabama history.
“I think he is certainly in the same breath of the long-time traditional great Alabama linebackers,” said Duncan. “Of all the guys that have gone through that program who have excelled, he is probably one that has the most physical ability of all of them.”
Though impressive, McClain’s contributions reached far beyond his statistics. In three seasons, his 275 total tackles ranks 10th all-time at Alabama and his 31.5 tackles for loss are fourth best.
It was his newly assumed leadership role in 2009 that took his legacy to the next level. With the loss of Rashad Johnson to graduation, McClain became the primary play caller in the Tide defense and was often referred to as the unit’s quarterback. It was a job he enjoyed and hopes will be part of what he’s remembered for at Alabama.
“I hope they see my leadership as well as my character,” McClain told reporters. “I wasn’t just a football player. I made good grades. I’ve been on the dean’s list the past two years.”
In an interview with the Daily in September, Krauss said he saw McClain’s potential when the former Red Raider first arrived in 2007. Initially impressed with his physical presence, the former NFL linebacker was impressed with the leader McClain emerged into as a junior in 2009.
His resolve and talent were tested even further in the first quarter of the fourth game this season. When close friend and fellow linebacker Dont’a Hightower went down with a devastating knee injury, McClain became even more vital to the success of the nation’s second-ranked defense.
He responded with his most impressive game of the season. Against Kentucky, McClain had 12 tackles and contributed to three turnovers in his first full game without Hightower. It also saw McClain ramp up his on-field training. With inexperienced players Courtney Upshaw and Nico Johnson taking turns filling in for Hightower, McClain’s expertise of the complex defensive schemes helped the two transition into their new roles.
The Tide defense wasn’t as intimidating without Hightower, but with McClain, it didn’t drop off. Ranked second in the nation in total defense when the sophomore went down, it still finished second after nine full games without him.
Leaving Hightower behind will be hard.
“I can’t even explain how much of an honor it has been to play with Dont’a,” McClain said. “I’m going to miss that. I talked with Dont’a some, and He told me he’d be mad (at me) if I stayed, actually. He said I had to do what’s best for me, and what’s best for me is not just playing with him but going out and making a better life for my family and I, so that’s what I did.”
Hightower’s absence also led to the opposition consistently running away from McClain since the balance wasn’t as threatening. The numbers, though didn’t drop off.
McClain had 105 tackles in 2009 — team best by a margin of 29 and 10 better than his team-high total from 2008.
His big numbers powered McClain to the Butkus Award and a consensus All-American selection.
All the way, McClain stressed his disinterest in the individual honors while focusing all his attention towards team success. By the time the Tide reached the BCS National Championship, a stomach bug bit McClain. It limited his practicing and forced him to take IVs before and during the game.
His intensity, though never waned.
And his ultimate goal was realized when the Tide ran past Texas to earn the 37-21 win.
Now, it’s on to the next challenge for McClain — a new test with a fresh legacy to create.
McClain’s big games
Auburn, 2007: In the game seen as his breakout performance, McClain piled up a career-high 15 tackles in a losing effort. He also intercepted a pass returned 23 yards to the Tiger 19.
Tulane, 2008: McClain equaled his career-high 15 tackles, 10 of which were solo stops, in the 20-6 win.
Kentucky 2008: His game-high 10 tackles were overshadowed by a first-quarter fumble recovery and touchdown that made a big difference in the 17-14 win.
Kentucky, 2009: A season-best 12 tackles was punctuated by a forced fumble, interception and deflected pass that was intercepted by Eryk Anders.
Auburn, 2009: His successful return to Jordan-Hare Stadium included 12 tackles, a huge fourth-quarter sack and helped knock down the final Auburn heave into the end zone on the game’s last play.
Mississippi State, 2009: His 11 tackles include a career-high three for loss and a season-high nine solos.
2007: Started nine of the 13 games, made 75 tackles (5 for losses totaling 18 yards) 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 1 quarterback hurry
2008: Started all 14 games, made 95 tackles (12 for losses totaling 45 yards) three sacks, 1 interception, 2 quarterback hurries.
2009: Started all 14 games, made 105 tackles (14.5 for losses totaling 63 yards), 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, 15 quarterback hurries.
Totals: Started 37 or 41 games, made 275 tackles (31.5 for losses totaling 126 yards) 8 sacks, 5 interceptions, 18 quarterback hurries