McClain's football smarts off the charts

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If the Big Defensive Coordinator in the Sky wanted to sculpt the modern middle linebacker, No. 3 Alabama junior Rolando McClain just may be his prototype: He is 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, and the way his cable-like limbs are connected by a strong torso, he could be mistaken for a small forward. Senior cornerback Javier Arenas described what it's like as a tackler when McClain arrives to finish off the guy with the ball.

"You black out for a second," Arenas said, "and try to figure out what truck hit you. You see him walking away. OK, it's him."

Crimson Tide H-back Preston Dial makes room for Heisman candidate Mark Ingram. Dial knows how to open holes. It is his station in life to block McClain three days a week. He's considering an easier line of work, like being Brock Lesnar's sparring partner.

"Not only are his legs real strong," Dial said of McClain, "but he's so physical with his hands in shedding blockers. He never stays blocked. You have to stop the linebacker's charge and switch his momentum. He's so violent when he comes and meets you in the hole, all you hope for is a stalemate. Instead of the running back picking his hole, Ro makes the decision for the running back which way he is going to go."

Yet McClain's physical skills are not the main reason he leads one of the nation's best defenses with 57 tackles. His ability to deliver a blow isn't why he's a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award.

There are moments on the practice field when McClain takes a play off. That's not to say that McClain would ever line up and not give everything he can possibly give, whether it's Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium against No. 9 LSU, Tuesday on the practice field or a July Wednesday in a 7-on-7 drill. McClain would take his uniform off before he would take a play off.

But there are times in practice when the coaches take McClain out of a drill to give a younger guy some work. McClain takes the play off. On those occasions, more often than not, McClain will not trot over to the sideline, grab a water bottle and chat up his teammates. McClain will walk to the middle of the field to stand alongside head coach Nick Saban.

Saban will watch the drill with his arms crossed. McClain will watch the drill with his arms crossed.

When McClain, consciously or not, adopts Saban's posture, it is physical confirmation of what everyone within Alabama football already understands. Ro McClain is Nick Saban writ large -- and fast and explosive. "Coach on the field" may be a cliché. With McClain, it fits. He may have a football-hot body but McClain is loved by his coaches and his teammates for his mind.

"It's unbelievable how much he understands the game," fellow linebacker Cory Reamer said. "The second part is how well he knows the defense. He really knows what Coach would like to go to in the situations we get it and he really does a good job communicating it."

On offense, when quarterback Greg McElroy calls an audible, the center changes the blocking scheme for the offensive line, and the backs and wide receivers signal one another their changes. On defense, when McClain calls an audible, he makes the changes for the defensive linemen, the secondary and the linebackers.

Some guys understand their position. But I would venture to guess Ro knows what every player is supposed to do on every play on defense.

-- Alabama coach Nick Saban

Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who held that position at Alabama the previous two seasons, has coached linebackers on the major college level and in the NFL for more than two decades.

"He's got that gift of being able to analytically process information and react to it as fast as any guy I've ever been around," Steele said. "There are a lot of ways to teach players -- in the classroom, on the board, with video, practice reps. Some guys have to do it full speed. You can pass Rolando in the hall and say, 'In this formation, in this defense we need to do this,' and it's done.

"I've never coached but two like that," Steele said. "One of them was Sam Mills, who played 12 years in the NFL and was All-Pro several times. And Rolando."

Sitting at his desk on a recent hectic, game-planning Monday, Saban paused to explain what makes McClain's grasp of defense different from most players. If his defensive playbook were a math text, it would be calculus. McClain knows it like a Tuscaloosa first-grader knows that two plus two equals 3rd-and-6.

"Some guys understand their position," Saban said. "But I would venture to guess Ro knows what every player is supposed to do on every play on defense, and he knows like I know who didn't do right, and when he didn't do right, sometimes immediately."

Asked to define McClain's football intelligence for an audience that hasn't played, Saban used baseball.

"You can teach a hitter where the strike zone is," Saban said. "You can even teach him how to swing a bat. But you really can't teach him [how to judge] a ball or a strike from the time it leaves the pitcher's hand until it gets to home plate. The guy's got to figure that out on his own and make an" -- Saban snapped his fingers -- "almost athletic intuition decision, that this is a good pitch to hit.

"Even though we're not playing baseball, from a football-playing standpoint, Ro would be … " Saban thought for a second.

"Albert Pujols?"

It would be a great story to say that McClain sought out Saban, that he came to Tuscaloosa from his hometown of Decatur, Ala., to scratch an intellectual itch. It would be a great story. It would be fiction.

"When I came here, he told me if I wanted to play my freshman year, I had to learn the defense," McClain said. He began to laugh. "I wanted to play."

That they came together at all is a happy accident. McClain committed to Alabama to play for Saban's predecessor, Mike Shula. All McClain knew about Saban was that he had won a national championship at LSU. Saban knew McClain had been one of the nation's top high school linebackers at Decatur High. But he didn't get to know him until the freshmen reported to campus in the summer of 2007.

Saban met a young man ready to compete. As McClain helped lead Decatur High to the state Final Four in basketball, he also continued working out for football.

"He understood when he committed to Alabama that, 'Hey, I have a chance to play early,'" Decatur High head football coach Jere Adcock said. "He and Caleb Thomas, who's a guard at UAB now, would come up here after basketball practice and lift weights."

Adcock said he has had players who pushed themselves as hard as McClain. "They're undersized," he said. "To see a kid of that size and that ability push himself to that level is why he has elevated himself."

McClain beat out a returning starter, sophomore Prince Hall, and started the opener as a true freshman. The season had its bumps. McClain started eight games. Saban, who drives his players and coaches as hard as he drives himself, learned not to yell at McClain.

"It didn't do any good," Saban said. He recognizes the obsession.

"I'm so competitive," McClain said. "I want to be the best at everything I do. Growing up, I wanted to be the smartest, wanted to be the best swimmer, whatever it was we were doing. Against everybody, anything I did. Whether it was in the classroom or whatever, I always wanted to be the best. I'm hard on myself. I know I'm not perfect and I know I'm never going to be perfect. At the same time, I can always work and be better because I want to get there. Coach says I'm too much of a perfectionist."

If Nick Saban thinks you're too much of a perfectionist, you might think about taking it down a notch. When McClain comes off the field distraught after missing a tackle, Saban is the one who tells him to let it go.

Saban wouldn't have McClain any other way.

"That's a tremendous asset, as long as you can keep channeling it in the right direction," Saban said.

In McClain's case, that direction is usually toward the line of scrimmage with ill will on his mind.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.