McClain works out at tailback

Ravens fullback's increased dedication on display at new part-time position

December 07, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,

No one knows where Le'Ron McClain will line up these days for the Ravens.

Will he start at fullback? This has been his primary NFL job, one at which he creates holes by knocking linebackers off their feet.

Or will he start at tailback as he did last Sunday? The ruggedly built McClain has become the Ravens' leading rusher this season in this role, running around some tacklers and through others.

There is only one certainty when the Ravens (8-4) face the Washington Redskins (7-5) tonight at M&T Bank Stadium: The Ravens' do-everything running back will break the huddle and rub his hands together before the first play, a routine that carries a personal message.

It's a silent nod to his mother, Gwen, who has become McClain's inspiration for his breakout season.

"By doing that, I think he knows he's going to have a good game," said Gwen, who will watch the nationally televised game from her Alabama home. "It gives him strength."

Known as a punishing blocker and powerful runner, McClain believes he gets his inner strength from his mother.

She raised him and his older brother by herself after the boys' father died when Le'Ron was 6 months old.

Gwen was constantly working two to three jobs, cleaning houses and hotel rooms. She would skip dinners so her sons would have enough food to eat.

"She's my motivation from how she raised me," Le'Ron McClain said. "I know how hard she worked to get to this point. That's why I'm working my tail off."

Hard work is what has turned McClain from a player who had to be helped off the field after his first training camp practice because of cramps - he reported nearly 20 pounds overweight - into the Ravens' most versatile offensive weapon.

As a fullback, he delivers hard-hitting blocks to clear the way for Willis McGahee and Ray Rice.

As a tailback, he leads the Ravens in rushing yards (545) and total touchdowns (seven).

As a receiver out of the backfield, he ranks third in yards after the catch (8.2).

"This guy should go to the Pro Bowl," said the Ravens' Lorenzo Neal, who has been the AFC's Pro Bowl fullback the past three seasons. "You don't see guys like that at the fullback position that can do so many things. The guy wants to be great."

After he showed up to training camp out of shape - "Le'Ron was his worst enemy in a lot of ways," running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said - Ray Lewis and Derrick Mason each talked to McClain about his importance to the team.

He decided at that point to regain the confidence of his teammates and coaching staff.

Now, the day after games, McClain breaks down his own film and tries to learn from his mistakes. During the week, he works out in the mornings with Neal to keep his weight around 260 pounds.

At practice, he no longer stops running 5 yards downfield on plays. He finishes them off by running 40 yards.

And the night before games, the last thing he does before going to sleep is read over his notes and watch film of the opponent again.

"So it's on my mind when I wake up," he said.

McClain's mind is always racing during games.

He has to know how to run the plays as a fullback, tailback and sometimes as the second tight end. There were a couple of times earlier this season when McClain knew he was the tailback but still began to line up as a fullback.

"He always challenges himself to do better," Neal said. "He just doesn't want to just do his job. A lot of people are just football players. But he's becoming a student of the game."

The most impressive part is how smoothly McClain has adapted to being a tailback, a position he hadn't played since high school.

He totaled 170 yards on the ground during his entire career at Alabama and rushed for 18 yards on eight carries with the Ravens last season.

Injuries at running back during training camp forced the Ravens into their experiment with McClain. The idea to use him as a tailback dates to his pro day at Alabama, when Montgomery (who was the Detroit Lions' running backs coach at the time) was the only one who worked out McClain as a tailback.

"Everything has just fallen into place," said McClain, a fourth-round draft pick by the Ravens in 2007. "I just hope it continues to get better. But it's all on me. It's on how I work."

McClain has delivered every time the Ravens have given him the ball. He has led the team in rushing in five of 12 games this season, including the past two.

Like McGahee and Rice, McClain can gain extra yards by cutting back, showing light feet for a big player. Unlike McGahee and Rice, McClain has the size to bowl over tacklers.

But the Ravens have had to teach the outspoken McClain some humility.

"I told him you're never going to be Jerome Bettis," Montgomery said. "So, we call him Jerome Lettuce."

The Ravens' coaching staff has been noncommittal on whether McClain will finish the season as the starting tailback.

Montgomery said McClain is a fullback first, but he acknowledged it's exciting to see where McClain can take this new role.

"This is like driving someplace the first time without your navigation system," Montgomery said.

Wherever this new course takes him, McClain knows what has gotten him to this point.

It all goes back to his mother, who continues to work two jobs. McClain wants to earn enough in his NFL career to reward his mother for everything she had to sacrifice.

Said McClain: "God willing, there will be one day that I can tell her to sit back and chill."

REDSKINS (7-5) @ RAVENS (8-4)

Tonight, 8:15

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM, 980 AM

Line: Ravens by 5

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.