TUSCALOOSA_ Before giving his final decision to the college football world, linebacker Rolando McClain spent part of Monday morning studying game film with sophomore Dont'a Hightower.
They went over things from last week's national championship victory against Texas, but also Florida International on Sept. 12, before Hightower was lost for the season with a knee injury. The tandem discussed scheme, defensive philosophy and techniques, anything that might help Hightower try to step into McClain's shoes.
"He told me he'd be mad if I stayed, actually," McClain said. "He said I had to do what's best for me and not just him, going out and making a better life for my family. That's what I did."
In a move that was largely expected, McClain ended his collegiate career a year early and declared himself eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft. He thanked the coaches for making him a better player and person and leaves with the blessing of Nick Saban, who encourages players to stay if they're projected to be a first-round selection but stay if not.
The Crimson Tide is still awaiting a decision from junior cornerback Kareem Jackson ("I have no idea," McClain said. "I talked with Kareem, I'm sure he got his grades back and he's talking with his family. I told him to do what's best for him and his family"), while the co-captain made his final decision after the BCS National Championship Game last Thursday, a 37-21 victory over Texas at the Rose Bowl, and meeting with Saban. He called it a "relief."
"The University of Alabama has been great to me these past three years," McClain said. "I came to school with the goal of being a first-team All-American, winning the Butkus (Award for linebacker of the year) 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 here. I think also that I have a few good linebackers behind me that can come in and contribute in such ways that I did."
With eligible undergraduates having until Friday to declare their draft status, most estimates have McClain among the top 15 selections in the first round, possibly as high as fifth.
However, that's also if everything falls right and the evaluation process still has to go through all-star games, pro day and individual workouts and the NFL Combine. This year's draft is considered top-heavy defensively at the top with high-profile talents like Tennessee safety Eric Berry, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Also, team needs will play a huge roll like with Kansas City at No. 5 and Oakland three picks later, as both could use a quality linebacker but are desperate for line help.
Teams to keep a close eye on include Cleveland at No. 7, which has numerous needs, and Denver, which has Chicago's pick at No. 11 should McClain fall that far. Although linebacker isn't considered a position with scarce talent like left tackle or defensive linemen, organizations with a definite need at the position and could consider trading up include New England, Arizona, Miami, Dallas and both New York teams.
Wake Forest's Aaron Curry was the top linebacker in last year's draft, No. 4 by the Seattle Seahawks who signed him to a six-year, $60 million deal, of which $34 million was guaranteed. The second linebacker was Southern California's Brian Cushing by Houston, who inked a five-year deal for $18 million, $10.4 million guaranteed.
While safety Rashad Johnson was considered the leader of Alabama's defense last season, this year's unit was clearly McClain's. In addition to making 105 tackles, Saban considered him his "quarterback" of the defense, who would frequently counter pre-snap offensive calls.
McClain also had 14.5 tackles for a loss, 14 hurries, four sacks, two interceptions, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. His career numbers were 41 games, 37 starts, 275 tackles, 31.5 for a loss, 17 hurries, eight sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, 16 pass breakups and five interceptions.
"I want everyone here to know that 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 and 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. He's done a great job academically. His leadership had as much impact on our team and our team's success since he's been here in the last three years, even in his freshman year, as anyone that I've ever been associated with. And we appreciate that.
"I still want Ro, and he's kind of promised me that he's going to do what he can and understands the importance of him getting an education and graduating from school one day. You're always one injury away from retirement when you're a player. But he has my support in terms of what he's doing, and we're going to help him every way that we can as a family of people at Alabama. Even though we would have loved to see him continue to play with us, we're also going to be very supportive in him being able to accomplish the individual goals that he can contribute at the next level and accomplish at the next level, because he's capable of doing it. He can do it, and I'm sure he will do it."
McClain plans to stay on campus this semester and train for the draft, while 35 credits short of his degree. He'll also help Hightower make the transition to middle linebacker after playing weakside before blowing out his knee against Arkansas on Sept. 26.
The plan for Hightower is to refrain from contact during spring practice, but his rehab continues to be ahead of schedule.
"I'm looking forward to it," Hightower said of trying to replace his friend. "It wasn't something that he just walked in one morning and said it was something that he wanted to do. He thought about it, obviously, for a while. I think he made the right decision, doing what's right for him."
"He'll do great," McClain said about Hightower. "He helped me. While he was here he did great his freshman year, he did great when he was playing this year. The only difference between Mike and Will is at Mike you have to talk. He's sort of like me, soft-spoken, but he'll step up to the calls."
With Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders out of eligibility, competition at the linebacker spots figures to be fierce this spring, with Freshman All-SEC selection Nico Johnson having starting experience at weakside and backups Chris Jordan, Jerrell Harris, Tana Patrick and Courtney Upshaw, among others, vying for playing time.
"What can I say, I'm a film nut," McClain said, adding about watching the Texas game, which he played with a stomach bug that required pregame and halftime IVs: "I played all right. They didn't have a lot of running plays. I covered good. I think leadership was bigger than my play, getting everyone lined up playing in the right defense."
Which is how McClain would like to be remembered at the Capstone; Maybe not so much for his bone-jarring hits, ability to chase down ball-carriers or freakish physique that has scouts drooling (6-foot-4, 258 pounds and huge wingspan), rather the things that didn't show up in his individual stats.
"I hope people look past just my ability to play football. I hope they see my leadership as well as my character," McClain said. "I wasn't just a football player. As Coach Saban said, I made good grades, I made dean's list the last two years."