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November 10, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ Although former University of Alabama middle linebacker Rolando McClain has finally broken his silence with Oakland Raiders reporters to make a plea for fans to attend games, he's apparently been talking plenty with one of his former teammates.
Sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower heard from McClain after the South Carolina loss, and they've been regularly calling and texting each other since. His message after Saturday's LSU game was simple, "Go out there and play and be a leader."
"I feel like I've been doing that the past few practices," Hightower said.
Although Hightower also revealed that he was ill over the bye week, he responded by making 10 tackles including one for a loss and a quarterback hurry at LSU and said he felt a "whole lot better. I know a lot better about what's going on and I guess I turned it up a little bit."
Consequently, he was named one of the coaching staff's defensive players of the week for just the second time this season, the other being Duke.
Filling McClain's shoes wouldn't be easy for anyone. Last year alone he tallied 105 tackles, 14.5 for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, four passes broken up and 14 hurries while winning the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker.
Although he doesn't have the same responsibilities, putting his hand down on the dirt like a lineman to frequently pass-rush, through nine games Hightower leads all front-seven players with 52 tackles, with 2.5 for a loss, three passes broken up and eight hurries.
That gives him 126 career tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss and 19 hurries.
But Hightower, who's also coming off a major knee injury sustained against Arkansas last season and was essentially the lone returning starter among the front seven, said it's been even tougher trying to replace the NFL's No. 8-overall draft pick as a leader.
"A lot of guys wouldn't really think that he would have to be a leader because we had so many veterans on the team," Hightower said. "Sometimes in certain situations it would be the veterans joking around or goofing off and sometimes Rolando would stop practice and have periods re-done.
"You have to look up to that. Coach Saban looks up to that. Those things that were expected of him, I'm trying to do the best I can to be the leader that he was."
As for how that translates to the rest of this season, Hightower had some more interesting things to say about the subject of leadership:
"Not only is Coach Saban preaching the same thing, but he wants the leaders to step up and say the same things he's saying. We're doing it and not always getting the results that we want, whether it be from the other guys or the older guys, it' s very frustrating.
"It's kind of some of the things you have to roll with when we have a couple of guys who haven't matured yet. But all though the season I've seen a lot of guys mature and continue to grow up. Hopefully before the season's over with we'll get that and finish stronger."
And specific to this week: "I think everyone just kind of woke up. It's different. It's not like guys around here are moping around. Coach Saban got up yesterday and said that guys have to wake up, this is not the team that we had last year."
After two losses that much is certain, with the No. 12 Crimson Tide either bouncing back against No. 19 Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium or ... well, the alternative isn't very appealing.
"They're a blue-collar team, they play hard, they kind of have the same kind of get-up-and-go-to-work every day mentality that Alabama has," senior tight end Preston Dial said about the Bulldogs. "We're looking forward to the challenge, I'll tell you that much."