McClain leaves for NFL, Smart staying

Spencer White

Junior All-American inside linebacker Rolando McClain will forgo his senior season and enter the 2010 NFL Draft, McClain announced at a press conference Monday afternoon.

“I’ve decided, in the best interests of myself and my family, and with the support of Coach Saban, that I’m going to enter the NFL Draft this year,” McClain said. “We feel like the University of Alabama has been great to me these past three years.”

McClain leaves the Crimson Tide as one of the most accomplished defensive players in school history, serving as a three-year starter at middle linebacker after a stellar prep career for Decatur High School. McClain assumed the role of defensive leader for the 2009 national championship season, leading his squad with 105 tackles, 24 more than any other player, and running the signals for nearly every defensive snap.

McClain also earned the coveted Butkus Trophy that is awarded to the nation’s top linebacker, was a consensus first-team All-American and was named a permanent team captain shortly before the SEC Championship, along with senior left guard Mike Johnson and senior defensive back and punt returner Javier Arenas.

“I came to school with the goals of being a first-team All-American, winning the Butkus and winning a national championship, and I’ve accomplished those goals,” McClain said. “I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve done here.”

The 6-foot-4, 258-pound McClain is projected on nearly every NFL mock draft as being a first-round pick, with several boards placing him in the top-10 projected picks for April’s draft.

“Everybody here knows my philosophy on guys coming out early for the draft, that if you’re projected to be [a first round pick], that’s something that I can support you on,” head coach Nick Saban said. “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 someday and that 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 in whatever way we can.”

With McClain’s departure, the void at leadership at the middle linebacker position will need to be filled by upcoming junior Dont’a Hightower, an exceptionally talented player whose sophomore season was cut short by knee ligament injury against Arkansas.

“It’s going to be some shoes to fill for sure,” Hightower said with a smile. “But I’m looking forward to taking over in the middle.”

Hightower admitted that he was almost a pivotal reason for McClain to stay another season, but Hightower encouraged McClain to make the smart decision and avoid the risk of injury.

“There were a couple of reasons that he wanted to come back, and one of those reasons was to stay back and play with me for another year,” Hightower said. “But me saying, ‘come back,’ that’s being selfish. Having something like what happened to me this year, having an injury, I didn’t want him to have to go through any of that. He made the right decision.”

Smart staying at Alabama

Nick Saban also announced during the press conference Monday afternoon that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart would be staying at Alabama as the defensive coordinator. Smart, 34, was wooed by several schools, including Georgia, his alma mater, after coordinating a nationally-top five ranked defense and earning the Broyles Award, given to the country’s top assistant coach.

“We’re very pleased and happy that Kirby is going to be staying here at the University of Alabama with us,” Saban said. “We want to continue to help him continue to develop his career here so that when he leaves here, it is going to be to be a head coach, probably in a very good situation.”

“After thinking about all the factors over the last couple days, we are going to stay at the University of Alabama,” Smart said in a statement released by UA athletics. “We love it in Tuscaloosa, have made some great friends here and I think we are building something special here at Alabama with Coach Saban…I’ve got a great deal of respect for Coach [Mark] Richt [of Georgia] and the job he has done there and the University of Georgia will also have a special place in my heart.”