Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Alabama finished tied for third nationally last season in total defense and rode the coattails of that suffocating unit to an unbeaten regular season.
The leader of that defense, safety Rashad Johnson, is gone.
But the talent hasn’t gone anywhere, and the guy who’s stepped in as the leader of the Crimson Tide’s 2009 defense might be the most talented of all.
If you’re looking for the quintessential inside linebacker in all respects -- size, speed, production, smarts and leadership -- Rolando McClain is at the very front of the line.
And if Alabama is going to indeed take it to another level defensively this season, he knows that he will have to take his leadership duties to another level.
Alabama coach Nick Saban challenged McClain to be a more vocal leader soon after last season ended.
“I was always a leader by example and wanted people to see how hard I worked and go by that,” said McClain, who led Alabama with 95 total tackles last season. “But I’ve taken it a step further by saying more to teammates and being a guy who affects practice in a positive way.
“That’s not my personality naturally, but I’m doing it to better my team. Personally, I’m a laid-back guy, and I like to do my thing and go about my business. I’m a stubborn guy and don’t like people to say things to me. But this team needed more from me. They needed me to be that kind of leader, and that’s what I’m going to be.”
The one thing that won’t change with this defense is its personality.
“We’re a smashmouth defense,” McClain said. “We like to hit teams in the mouth. That’s just how we’re going to play and we'll see if other teams can match our intensity.
“We’re hard-nosed, and we’re going to play hard every snap for every game. That’s our identity. Our goal is to have every team that we play walk off the field, whether we win or lose, and say, 'We never want to play that team again.'"
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound McClain will let the results speak for themselves as to whether this Alabama defense can be even better than the one a year ago.
There certainly appears to be more depth in the front seven, and it’s debatable whether there’s a better linebacker tandem in the country than McClain and sophomore Dont’a Hightower.
In many ways, the talent on this defense is beginning to resemble what it looked like at LSU when Saban left there following the 2004 season.
But the only thing McClain is interested in is the here and now, which in his words is a one-game season with Virginia Tech.
He already thinks like Saban on the field and is now starting to sound like him.
“Personally, I’m not worried about a championship, and I don’t think the rest of my teammates are,” McClain said. “Of course, that’s our goal always. We want to go into the season and win championships. That’s what everybody wants, the big picture. But what we’re doing now is just trying to perfect our craft and get ready for Virginia Tech.
“You can’t just skip to the championship game. That’s not the way it works, at least not the way it works at Alabama.”