Alabama Isn't Just the Modern Linebacker U, It's THE Linebacker U

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It began with an impromptu press conference, hastily called in 2009. 

Linebacker Rolando McClain didn’t suspect anything major when he received a phone call the Monday following the SEC Championship Game telling him to be at the football building the next morning for a meeting with head coach Nick Saban followed by an interview session with media.

However, his suspicions were aroused a little due to being told to dress up, which was different because when players were on camera they're almost always wearing something Crimson Tide-related.

"I was thinking, 'Why do I need to wear slacks and a collared shirt?'" McClain said. "We don't do media like that."

He was still completely surprised even after reaching Saban's office, where Dick Butkus walked in carrying his namesake trophy that annually goes to the nation's best linebacker.

"I had no idea," McClain said. "I'm really a loss for words. I didn't expect it. Individual awards are great, but my main focus is to get my team ready for the national championship."

He later added: "Obviously I'm real excited for the award. I'm sure my mom will be proud."

"He was really surprised," Saban said. "It was a lot of fun."

Ever since then, reporters covering the Crimson Tide have been on high alert in early December, as Alabama has repeatedly, and almost annual, had someone up for the award. 

When C.J. Mosley won in 2013, and Reuben Foster in 2016, Butkus sprung the surprise at the team banquet. One could make the argument that Reggie Ragland was deserving of the honor in 2015, but he did land SEC Defensive Player of the Year. 

"Anytime you're a competitor, I always want to win everything," said Ragland, who used his close second-place finish to Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith as motivation for the College Football Playoff. "A good guy won it. I can't be mad. I'll take it with a grain of salt and keep moving forward."

Nevertheless, Alabama has become the standard at the linebacker position. 

No program has come close to landing as many 5-star recruits at the position. 

On the flip side, it's also blown away the competition in terms of consensus/unanimous All-American status, and the subsequent number of draft picks. 

Sports Illustrated recently named Alabama the modern Linebacker U, largely based off what former Crimson Tide players have done in the NFL over the past decade.

Alabama: Linebacker U

The thing is, it was already Linebacker U.

Like all-time best. 

For years Penn State had that designation under head coach Joe Paterno, and rightfully so.

Beginning with Dennis Onkotz, a two-time All-American in 1968-69, the Nittany Lions had the reputation for regularly having outstanding players at the position. Others included Jack Ham, John Skorupan, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short and Paul Posluszny, who were all consensus All-Americans.

Nevertheless, Penn State only had the third-most consensus All-Americans at linebacker since 1965, when the NCAA got rid of its rules requiring the use of the one-platoon system that forced players to play on offense and defense. The most recent player to join that club was Dan Connor in 2007, when he finished his career as Penn State’s all-time leading tackler with 419.

It's also only had two players win the Butkus Award, although it's only been handed out since 1985. 

Meanwhile, Alabama’s history includes Derrick Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, Lee Roy Jordan and Woodrow Lowe, who will stand up against any four linebackers in history.

All four are in the College Football Hall of Fame. That's one more enshrined linebacker than Penn State, which has had three. 

Yes, that’s the same year Saban landed in Tuscaloosa, and when McClain began his collegiate career. One of the holdovers from Mike Shula’s recruiting efforts he started eight of 13 games as a freshman, finishing with 75 tackles, two interceptions and a sack.

That year, safety Rashad Johnson led the team with 94 tackles, while tied for second with 80 were defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry and linebacker Darren Mustin, a transfer from Middle Tennessee State. 

In 2009, McClain led the Crimson Tide with 105 tackles, including 14.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. In addition to earning a national championship ring, he was also named a team captain and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

"One of his great attributes is his leadership," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "At times he's been able to really pick up the defense and team, put us on his back and carry us to the finish line."

McClain was Alabama's first Butkus winner since Thomas in 1988. 

Rolando McClain during the 10-year reunion of Alabama's 2009 national championship

Rolando McClain waves to fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium during a 2019 game. 

"I think the committee made a great selection in Rolando McClain, not only because he had a great year on the field, did a fantastic job for his team and included his teammates in a positive way," Saban said. "His performance and his production individually was off the charts."

Butkus — who played before 1965 and was listed as a unanimous All-American at center in 1963 and a consensus selection in 1964, but was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a linebacker — was impressed with McClain as well. 

"He's so big, I kind of wonder if he might be like Demarcus Ware (of the Dallas Cowboys), where he might get into a three-point with three down linemen and be the rush guy on the end,” Butkus said. “He's certainly big enough to play the middle and he can drop back. So he could be like another down player from what I've seen."

McClain ended up being the eight-overall draft selection of the Oakland Raiders, which was almost as big of a surprise at the Butkus ceremony.

“I’m sitting here like, ‘Am I supposed to stop the interview, talk to Dick, or am I supposed to act like he’s not there?’ ” McClain said about his immediate reaction. “I had no idea what to do. So I saw coach get up and shake his hand and naturally just got up. I kind of froze.

“It’s kind of humbling. You think you’re a pretty good linebacker and then Dick Butkus is in the room."

Some of this post originated from "100 Things Crimson tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," published by Triumph Books