Linebacker is projected as a first-rounder
By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Rolando McClain started the first game of his freshman season and finished Alabama career as a national champion.
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Now, he’s ready for the next challenge and an even bigger stage.
The Decatur (Ala.) High School graduate announced he’s skipping his senior season at Alabama and entering the NFL Draft. The decision was made public at a hastily-called Monday afternoon news conference, but it’s a move that surprised few considering McClain’s rise to dominance in the middle of the Crimson Tide defense.
Now, he’s due to make millions as a sure-fire first round pick who could go as early as the top 10 during the April 22 draft.
“The University of Alabama has been great to me these past three years,” McClain told reporters. “I came to school with the goal of being a first-team All-American, winning the Butkus and winning a national championship. I’ve accomplished those goals, and I think I’m going to leave the University pretty satisfied with what I’ve done.”
Coach Nick Saban has said on many occasions that he’d advise any junior evaluated as a first-round pick to enter the draft and told reporters Monday that he supported the decision. Projections had McClain in that category before the 2009 season that only affirmed his status among the elite. His 105 tackles, 14.5 for loss, earned the coveted Butkus Award and made McClain a consensus All-American and among the best linebackers in Alabama history.
“Rolando McClain has been as great an ambassador for the University of Alabama probably as anyone ever has in terms of how he’s represented himself, his family, the university, the state of Alabama and our team,” Saban said. “That’s not only in terms of being a great football player — probably the best defensive football player in the country, in my opinion, or one of them, and certainly at his position — but he always did things right.”
Though he’s leaving school before graduation, McClain promised Saban that he’d eventually finish his degree.
“You’re always one injury away from retirement when you’re a player,” Saban said.
Should he remain healthy, McClain’s future in football appears bright.
Physically, the 6-foot-4, 258-pounder is considered the prototype for a middle linebacker. Throw in the intellect that made him the captain and play caller in the elaborate defensive schemes, and McClain has scouts salivating.
Saban couldn’t compliment him enough this season — often praising his mastery of the mental side of the game by calling him a coach on the field. McClain has said he knows were all 11 players needed to be on any given play. At times, he’s wrangled them into place with a tug on the jersey and a quick point.
His size and speed makes the Decatur native a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks on both ends. A threat to rush the passer and drop into coverage, McClain intercepted two passes this fall, sacked quarterbacks four times and got pressure on them on 14 other occasions.
Most mock NFL drafts put him in the top half of the opening round where salaries reach into the eight-figure range. No first-round pick in 2009 made less than $11.3 million on a five-year deal with the final selection Ziggy Hood guaranteed to make $6.1 million. Move up to the top half of the ’09 draft, and the guarantees were in the $10 million range and higher.
The current NFL collective bargaining agreement made the 2010 draft especially enticing for college juniors. McClain was among the six underclassmen to declare for he draft on Monday alone and 47th overall who are taking advantage of the player’s market this spring.
Owners backed out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008, so there will be no salary cap in 2010 and a threat of a work stoppage if a new deal isn’t in place by 2011.
Of the top 10 prospects evaluated by Scout Inc., six are juniors including McClain who was No. 7 on the list.
McClain’s departure leaves just three starters from the 2009 defense that was one of the best in the nation. That doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare, McClain said.
“With guys like Dont’a (Hightower) being back and next year and Nico Johnson being back next year, I think they’ll come in and be able to do just as good as I did,” McClain said.
Hightower, a potential All-American as a sophomore in 2009, tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in the fourth game of the season and is due to return in 2010.
For McClain, there won’t be much time for rest after winning the national title on Thursday.
The NFL Scouting Combine will be Feb. 18-24. McClain isn’t eligible for the all-star games, such as the Senior Bowl, so the combine will have added significance for his draft hopes.
McClain is just one of a handful of Alabama players who go land on an NFL roster. Javier Arenas, Terrence Cody, Mike Johnson, tight end Colin Peek and place kicker Leigh Tiffin are participating in the Jan. 30 Senior Bowl and Justin Woodall is headed to the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 30.
Junior cornerback Kareem Jackson is also considering the draft, but has not announced a decision.