Like Justin Woodall, Rolando McClain's role in the defense got that much more important with the graduation of Rashad Johnson. Unlike Woodall, who was the silent workhorse of the secondary last season, McClain was a key cog in last year's machine, calling the plays along with Johnson and making sure everyone up front was in the proper alignments and knew their assignments. Now arguably the most visible (well, besides Cody, who is visible from space) and vital player on that side of the ball in the coming season, McClain will be counted on to help take up the leadership slack left by Johnson and to keep what could very well be an improved front seven one of the leading units in the country.
Why is he so important?
Although Saban has brought in a lot of linebacker talent since his arrival, McClain was the first true top shelf prospect he landed and has been a significant part of the defense ever since his arrival, thanks in no small part to the continually disappointing Prince Hall and his frequent stints in Saban's doghouse. True freshman McClain and walk on MTSU transfer Darren Mustin occupied the Mike and Will for most fo the '07 season while Hall played sparingly as a backup and never managed to work his way back into serious playing time despite having earned Freshman All-America honors and looking like the next great Alabama linebacker in '06. Because of this, McClain was thrown into the fire early and often and came out one of the best linebackers in the SEC (and country). It's that sort of game forged (and tested) mettle that helped the Alabama defense take a huge leap forward last season, and it's the exact thing that is going to keep Alabama's defense rated among the best in the nation.
Though replicating McClain's production last season (he lead the team with 95 tackles) would be difficult, but ultimately "doable," losing his experience and leadership that would be the biggest blow. As mentioned previously, McClain will be responsible for calling the defense and it's his understanding of Saban's schemes that will continue to be key this season, especially with an ever younger cast of linebackers rotating in and out. Without Rashad to lead the defense, it's up to McClain to keep the unit as a whole together and on the same page in the coming season.
What's the Backup Plan?
At any one of the linebacker positions, the answer to this question is probably Dont'a Hightower. The kid is a total freak of nature, able to put his hand down at Jack and play rush end, stand strong against the run and fill gaps at the Will or Mike, or play press coverage on TEs and backs from the Sam. But should it become necessary for Hightower to step over to Mike, who fills in at Will? Courtney Upshaw and Chris Jordan have shown a lot of promise in backup roles, while Jerrell Harris is almost certain to become a star in his own time, but none of them has really done enough to get their names known beyond the group of obsessive faithful that can rattle off the two deep of the team without any trouble (you know, us). Best guess, Hightower moves over to Mike with Cory Reamer continuing to bounce back and forth between Will and Sam depending on the game situation, leaving Harris and Upshaw to fill in wherever necessary. It's not an ideal situation by any stretch, but it still leaves two game tested and knowledgable players (Reamer and Hightower) in prominent roles with solid talent filling in as well.