Rookie McClain on his way up

Raven overcomes homelessness, 'tweener' label to make impact

November 01, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

On his first defensive snap in the NFL, Ravens rookie linebacker Jameel McClain not only sacked Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, but also got a safety for the two-point bonus.

As arrivals go, it was confirmation of what outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine saw on tape when he studied the unheralded Syracuse senior before the 2008 draft.

What he saw was a hybrid player with the instincts of an inside linebacker and the skills of a pass rusher.

"He was one of us, the way he played [at Syracuse]," Pettine said yesterday.

McClain was a perfect match at linebacker for the Ravens' multiple defenses. Even though he went undrafted - primarily because of his "tweener" status - he signed as a free agent with the Ravens, then worked diligently through the summer to get into position for the sack of Russell.

It has been quite a journey for the 23-year-old from inner-city Philadelphia. He lived with three siblings and his mother, Barbara Flood, for a year in the Salvation Army in nearby Norristown, Pa.

He boxed in the Golden Gloves program as a young teenager, falling in love with Philadelphia's rich ring history.

Then he played all over the Syracuse defense, three years with his hand down as a lineman before finally playing a true linebacker position as a senior.

Homelessness gave him the determination to change his life. Football gave him the opportunity.

"It was an experience," McClain said of his year, right before middle school, at the Salvation Army. "You understand what it's like being on the other side, being where you're completely down and the only thing you can do is look up. We just fought to get out of it."

Because his father was incarcerated until McClain was 17, McClain looked to his uncle, Greg Smith, and his older brother, Andrew Jackson, as father figures. They pointed him toward a better education, which he got at George Washington High in northeast Philadelphia.

He took care of the rest.

"I am the first to graduate from college in my generation of my family," he said.

Ken Landphere, who represents McClain with Sean Howard from Walnut Creek, Calif., says McClain is "as determined as any player I've been around."

"There's not a single player I've worked for who I have as much confidence in as Jameel."

The Ravens had so much confidence in McClain that as soon as the draft ended, they made him their No. 1 free-agent priority on defense. Why not draft him? The third-round selection of Tavares Gooden took the Ravens out of the linebacker market, Pettine said, and other needs superseded.

So Pettine called McClain first, then general manager Ozzie Newsome phoned the linebacker, then defensive coordinator Rex Ryan with a full-court press.

"We threw the big hitters at him," Ryan said. "And we were fortunate to get him. ... We like the way he plays the game. We never realized he was going to be this smart and could learn our system, which ... is fairly complicated if you're learning multiple spots."

Pettine knew McClain could pick up the system after he asked him in a pre-draft meeting to explain what he did in the Syracuse defense and McClain described to him what all 11 players did on the defense.

The Ravens proceeded to sell him on how his versatility suited the Ravens best. He said it was a "no-brainer" to choose Baltimore over the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints.

Pettine said: "It was like getting another draft pick. The kid's really willed himself to be a player. He's extremely coachable, very smart, very tough.

"I think he knows where he came from and realizes if you get back out on the street, how quickly things can unravel for you. I think he's got himself in a good position and he's got a death grip on it and he's not going to let go."

The Ravens have a strong history with undrafted players. Their honor roll includes Priest Holmes, Mike Flynn, Will Demps, B.J. Sams and Maake Kemoeatu.

Ryan gave McClain seven defensive snaps against the Raiders last week. He made two tackles. On a plus-minus scale, Pettine gave him seven plusses.

But McClain, who has been active each week this season, doesn't feel he has arrived.

"I'm still struggling right now, trying to make my way to the top," he said. "When the season's over, I can reflect, but right now, all I can do is keep my head down and work."

Notes:: Coach John Harbaugh said cornerback Chris McAlister (knee) will miss tomorrow's game in Cleveland, along with safety Dawan Landry (neck) and tight end Daniel Wilcox (thigh). Harbaugh also said cornerback Samari Rolle (neck) is doubtful, but he expects offensive tackles Jared Gaither (neck) and Adam Terry (knee) to play.

hey, jamison!

Each week, Baltimore Sun reporter Jamison Hensley will answer fans' questions about the Ravens. To submit a question, e-mail sports@baltsun.com. Provide your name and phone number so we can verify the e-mail.

RAVENS @BROWNS

Tomorrow, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Browns

by 1 1/2

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.