By Steve Corkran
Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 at 1:26 pm in Oakland Raiders.
Media aren’t the only ones that find it difficult getting Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain to be more outgoing and communicative. Raiders coaches are doing double time in an effort to get McClain to assert himself as a leader and the linchpin of the defense.
In a rare interview, McClain said Monday that he is open to a heightened role, even if it means stepping out of his comfort zone.
“Oh. I don’t know,” McClain said, when asked if he’s comfortable being a leader. “I don’t, really. My nature is, I’m a quiet shy guy and I keep to myself. The coaches ask me to get away from that, basically. I’m trying to do that and I’m fighting with myself.”
McClain said his teammates are making it easier on him to be more vocal and to do more than lead by example, which is the method McClain prefers.
In McClain, the Raiders see a bright, young, talented player who has yet to realize his potential or play at the level commensurate with the No. 8 pick of the NFL draft.
“He’s done a real good job from a leadership standpoint,” coach Dennis Allen said after an offseason workout. “He’s very instinctive. He’s smart out there. He’s taken command of the huddle. Those things I’ve been pleased with.”
Allen also wants McClain to improve in his pass coverage. The Raiders, of course, can help out by not asking McClain to cover Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson or former San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson on post routes.
So far, McClain has proven adept at blitzing and covering receivers in the flat in his two NFL seasons. Beyond that, the knock on him is that he too often guesses wrong, jumps in the wrong gap and gets out of position on both run and pass plays.
There’s a faction that believes the Raiders used McClain the wrong way the past two seasons. To that, McClain said, he isn’t sure what to make of how he has been used so far.
“I don’t know,” McClain said. “Of course, I was in a 3-4 with coach (Nick) Saban and I did pretty well. But I’m just playing whatever they ask me to play and play that to the best of my ability, do the best I can and help make this defense better.”
McClain was referring to his standout days at Alabama, when he anchored the Tide defense and received the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
Allen said the Raiders defense will be more “multiple” this season, meaning they will incorporate the 3-4 and more blitzing into their overall scheme. Those changes figure to bode well for McClain.
When asked to assess his play last season, McClain refused to use injuries as an excuse for his uneven play last season.
“I’m not going to put an injury on anything,” McClain said. “I’m just saying that I didn’t play to the best of my ability and neither did our defense. We all can improve. It starts here with training camp. We came in with the right attitude in terms of we’re looking to improve. So, let’s start with that.”
Backup safety Mike Mitchell said McClain has learned from his off-field transgressions the past year or so and that McClain is primed for a big season.
Before you discount that as a possibility, consider the quantum leaps taken in their third season by former Raider cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and current wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.
“He’s just more mature,” Mitchell said. “You got to think, when he first got drafted, he was 21 years old. So, he’s a very young guy. The changes that you see are just a boy becoming a man.
“You won’t see nothing but good things coming from Ro. He’s learned from everything that’s happened from him. He’s learned from being in the league two years. It’s going to be a big year for him. I’m really excited.”
The odds of McClain making a precipitous jump this season seem to skyrocket when you take into account the scheme change. Mitchell agrees.
“I think so,” Mitchell said. “But, again, I’m not Ro. He controls what he does. I’m 100 percent confident in him. This is the best shape he’s ever been in. Coach gave us weights that we had to report at for the first time. He looks really good. He was killing the conditioning test. You saw him flying around today. The kid’s a beast.”
During the 5-minute-plus interview, McClain was engaging, introspective and even funny, at times. Team employees have worked hard in the past to get McClain to speak to the media and, by extension, the fans. To little avail.
It didn’t help that during McClain’s rookie season, then-coach Tom Cable, according to McClain, told McClain that he didn’t have to speak with the media, which is against league rules and places McClain at risk of being fined $25,000 for each violation.
Former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon spoke with the Raiders players Sunday about the importance of speaking with the media. It remains to be seen whether that resonated with McClain. Here’s to hoping that McClain comes out of his shell, for he is one of those players who actually has something to say that is worth hearing and reading.
Time will tell. When asked at the end of the interview, whether the media were growing on him, McClain said, “No, I wouldn’t say that.”
The Raiders, of course, are more concerned about McClain growing on the field. Not even McClain has a strong take on whether the fans, his teammates and coaches have seen the best of McClain.
“I don’t know,” McClain said. “I guess we’ll see. Like I said, I don’t know. I’m not big on individual stats. The most important thing is for the defense to be great. That’s why they drafted me, to bring the defense up and make plays. That’s what I’m striving to do.”
Let’s start with that, as he said.