Let’s be clear.
Justin Durant remains the favorite to open the season as the Dallas Cowboys’ starter at middle linebacker in place of the injured Sean Lee.
He has held down the role since minicamp in June and has been the team’s most consistent and reliable linebacker throughout training camp.
Still, the Cowboys’ defense, which ranked last in the league last year, is left wanting for a healthy Pro Bowl-level talent in the front seven.
It’s one reason that when talk turns to backup middle linebacker Rolando McClain the eyes of the coaches and members of the scouting staff glisten.
They believe McClain, a former first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, can be that Pro Bowl-type of player.
It’s a been a slow process in training camp as McClain — who didn’t play at all last year before signing with the Cowboys in July — has dealt with a couple of injuries.
Coaches and scouts will tell you, however, that the 6-foot-4, 259-pounder has been coming on of late like a freight train roaring down a mountain.
They are tempering their expectations and displaying their excitement in hushed tones, preferring to take it one practice at a time with the former Alabama star, who retired twice in the last year and hasn’t played since 2012.
“He’s very impressive when he’s out there,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The big thing with him right now is being able to put good days together.
“He’s a big guy. He can run. He’s physical. He’s instinctive. He flashes as a guy who knows what he is doing. He reads things. He strikes the runner.
“There are a lot of things to like about him, but again it’s still early. He’s got to do it again and again and again.”
That’s as far as Garrett will go with McClain publicly — at least until he can count on him consistently.
McClain knows he will be watched every day. His effort. His moods. His attitude.
“I’m trying to get my body back right,” McClain said. “I’m not all the way there yet. I feel all right.”
McClain said he doesn’t care that people are wondering daily if he is 100 percent committed. He said those issues are behind him.
“I had personal reasons I had to take care of to walk away from the game,” McClain said. “I did what’s right for me and my family most importantly. I got myself better. I’m back in football and I’m glad to be a Cowboy.”
McClain certainly looks better, losing more than 20 pounds since his playing days with the Raiders, and has a better outlook on life.
“I love life,” responded McClain, when asked if he loved football again.
“I love life, and football is part of my life, so I love life,” he said.
McClain has certainly gone a different way on this renewed NFL journey with the Cowboys.
While he might have had problems with Oakland coach Dennis Allen, he is reciting Garrett’s one-day-at-a-time gospel in training camp.
“I’m thinking about meetings,” said McClain, when asked about possibly surpassing Durant for the starting job. “We have a meeting this afternoon. Every day at work, go watch the film and get better from it and get ready to work tomorrow.”
He is expected to make his Cowboys debut in Saturday’s preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium. McClain sat out last Thursday’s preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers, making Saturday’s game his first since 2012.
Yet, he wouldn’t even confirm that, waiting for the Cowboys to give him his marching orders.
“Mr. [Jerry] Jones and Coach Garrett, they’ll decide when they want me to play and how much they want me to play and what I have to do in order to be ready for the regular season,” McClain said. “I’m just gonna grab the playbook and continue to study the defense and continue to work and build the chemistry with these guys. It’s all in their hands.”
Well, do you want to play?
“I want to do whatever they want me to do,” McClain responded.
The freight train is coming in the form of a former Alabama All-American and first-round draft pick who is loving life again.
Running backs beware.