11 January 2010
In a move that surprised absolutely no one, Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain announced on Monday that he would be entering the 2010 NFL Draft. The unanimous All-American and Butkus Award winner was a permanent team captain for the 2009 National Champion Crimson Tide.
Where does Rolando stand in the history of Bama's great linebackers?
If you just look at the stats, you'll see that Rolando doesn't hold any single-season or career records for defensive players in Alabama history. If you just look at the stats, then you have no understaning of the game of football, and no understanding of what role a great leader plays on a team.
But since stats are the only tangible thing we can look at, we'll start there...
His career line looks like this (with placement in any top tens in school history listed in parenthesis)
Tackles - 274 (10th)
Tackles for a loss - 31.5 (4th)
Yards lost on TFL - 126 (3rd)
Sacks - 8
QB Hurries - 17
INT - 5
So in six total categories, he ranks no better than 3rd in any one, and in the top ten only three times. If you take into account the fact that he did these things in only three seasons, it makes them a bit more impressive, though. In fact, the only other three year player ahead of him on the tackles list is Saleem Rasheed. All of the guys ahead of him on the tackles for a loss list were four year players.
If you duplicated his 2009 numbers in each of these categories for the 2010 season, he would shatter the school record for tackles by 72. He would break the tackles for a loss record by 12.
He was the tenth Bama linebacker to be honored as a first team All-American, with the previous guys being:
- Mike Hall - 1968
- Woodrow Lowe - 1973, 74, 75
- Barry Krauss - 1978
- Thomas Boyd - 1980, 81
- Cornelius Bennett - 1984, 85, 86
- Derrick Thomas - 1988
- Keith McCants - 1989
- Dwayne Rudd - 1996
- DeMeco Ryans - 2005
Obviously, the big name missing from that list is Lee Roy Jordan in 1962. He was officially honored as an All-American as a center.
He was Bama's second winner of the Butkus Award, following Thomas's win in 1988.(the award was first given in 1985).
Having said all of that... both stats and awards fail to tell the entire story. Each of these ten players listed above were great. In fact, three of them (Jordan, Bennett, and Lowe) are in the College Football Hall of Fame (Thomas is certain to follow soon). But each of those guys brought something more to the table than just stats an honors.
For any great defense, the linebacker spot is key. Especially the middle linebacker spot.
He's the guy who makes all of the adjustments for the front seven players. He's the guy who has the responsibility of covering the entire field. A defense is only as good as its middle, and that's especially true in a 3-4 base, which Bama has run in all three of Rolando's years.
But it goes beyond all of that, as well.
Rolando committed to Alabama on June 21, 2006. If you know your dates, then you know that Mike Shula was the head coach at that time. While Alabama was coming off of a 10-win season in 2005, led by DeMeco Ryans on defense, it was not exactly a popular time to be lining up to come to Alabama. When the 2006 season went down the tubes and Mike Shula was fired, it would have been very easy for Rolando to turn elsewhere. Afterall, he was ranked among the top 50 players in the country, and the #2 inside linebacker by the folks at Rivals.com.
Rolando stuck by his commitment, though, and when he signed, it was to play for Nick Saban at Alabama. It might not be totally accurate to say that Rolando was the first player to "buy in" to Nick Saban's "process." But when you consider that he started the first game of his first season, you would have to assume that he was certainly among the first to do so. During the 2007 season that saw the Tide struggle with off of the field issues, the young freshman was a steadying influence both on and off of the field.
In each year that followed, Nick Saban asked more of Rolando - both as a linebacker and as a leader. And in 2009, in was clear from the first practice in the fall that this defense was his defense. Javier Arenas always had the great quotes, but any time someone was looking for real answers from a player on the defense, they went to Rolando. And any time a player on the defensive side of the ball needed help (voluntary or not), it was Rolando who was giving it.
He didn't miss a single meaningful snap during the 2009 season - not one. He didn't come out because of injury. He didn't come out because of fatigue. He only came out of the game when the outcome had been decided. And then, he did so happily in order to give a younger guy playing time.
When his friend and fellow inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower was lost for the season, he grabbed the next guy in line (freshman Nico Johnson), and took him under his wing. It's no coincidence that he mentioned these two guys by name in his press conference on Monday. He was sending them both a message... that this is their defense now.
While it's impossible to quantify exactly what a leader like that means to a football team, I think the fact that Alabama won SEC Title number 22, and National Title number 13 with Rolando as the central figure of the defense probably tells us all that we need to know. The fact that Nick Saban has been very open and honest about the fact that Rolando is the unquestioned leader of the defense tells me the rest.
I didn't have the pleasure of watching Lee Roy Jordan play. Hall was before my time, and I was really too young to remember either Krauss or Boyd. The rest of the guys on the list, I remember well.
The thing about all of those guys, beginning with Bennett, is that they mostly played outside. Rudd would slide inside some, and Ryans has made the move to the middle in the NFL. But McClain is the only one in that list that was 100% a middle linebacker. So saying that he's the best middle linebacker since, at least, 1983 really isn't a stretch.
If you were making an all-time linebacker squad for Alabama history, I would think that Bennett and Thomas would have to be the two outside guys. I don't think you would find a credible list anywhere that failed to list Jordan as one of the middle linebackers. With all due respect to the many great inside linebackers that have worn the crimson and white, I'm confident in placing Rolando McClain alongside old #54 in the middle.
A linebacking unit of Lee Roy Jordan and Rolando McClain, flanked by Derrick Thomas and Cornelius Bennett. Wow!
For Rolando, the decision to head to the NFL had to be an easy one. At this point, he has accomplished virtually everything that a college football player can. He's won a major individual award. He's won a conference title. He's won a national title.
Most of all, though, he has forever taken his place among the elite players in Crimson Tide history. He has, to coin the phrase, "writ his name in Crimson flame."
Alabama does not retire jersey numbers. Instead, each locker in the Bryant-Denny Stadium locker room lists all of the previous All-Americans who have worn the number of the player using that locker. At some point in the near future, a player will be given the #25 to wear. And every time that he suits up to play a home game for the Tide, he will see the name Rolando McClain etched into the glass of the cabinet above his locker. And each time he takes the field, he'll have to do honor to that number in the hearts and minds of the Alabama fans who had the privilege of watching Rolando McClain play.
So long, Rolando McClain. Good luck in the NFL... and Roll Tide!
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