For Nashville Kats lineman C.J. McLain, life has sometimes been as hard as the hits he levels at opposing quarterbacks.
But in his rookie season with the Kats he has used his speed and athleticism to lead the team's linemen with 30 tackles and four quarterback sacks. His play on the line, especially on the offensive side of the football, will be crucial Saturday afternoon when the Kats (11-4) face the San Jose SaberCats (11-4) in the semifinals of the Arena Football League playoffs. Kickoff time at the Gaylord Entertainment Center is at 12:30 p.m. The game is being televised nationally on ABC.
Kats head coach Pat Sperduto liked what he saw last year from lineman Ben Crosland who bounced back after a season of injuries to perform at a high level in the playoffs. Sperduto decided he needed a player like Crosland on the other side of the line and he started looking at videotape. He watched McLain, a former University of Arkansas player, in games for the Arkansas Twisters of AF2 and liked what he saw.
"C.J. and Ben add a different element to our front line," Sperduto said. "We wanted someone like Ben who could get up the field and get around the quarterback. That is exactly what C.J. brings to the table for us is a guy who can work that edge.
"I saw him first on film and I loved what I saw. I kind of investigated him and the truth is he had a tough background and has made some mistakes. C.J. has been a model citizen since he has been here. And that's a credit to him. He has matured. He knows a lot is riding on him. Now a lot is riding on us."
McLain, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, has the type of body many football players work forever without success to attain.
"He has the type of body that coaches and players like me prayed for back in our day," Sperduto said. "Not often do you find a guy who is 6-4 or 6-5 and weighs 250 to 270 who can run like a deer, jump and do all the physical things C.J. does. He's a physical specimen."
The time in AF2 helped McLain ease into the indoor version of football.
He quickly realized that his speed was a big asset in the Arena League.
"Things go so fast that you have to have good, quick reaction time," McLain said. "I won't say it is necessarily flat out speed that's important, but if you can move to a certain place quickly it helps out a lot."
The line may be the strongest in the five-year history of the franchise. McLain credits the entire group for playing with a level of intensity that makes it one of the most physically punishing units in the league.
"It is as much of a perfect situation as I ever seen," McLain said. "When you have a great relationship between the veterans and younger guys it gives us a good balance. The older guys try to teach and coach. And the young guys are strong and fast. That is a good mix that we have.
"Our attitude has always been that what our line does is beat people up. We just hit hard. We run fast. We all love it. If you had a couple of guys who didn't fall into what we are doing it would have been harder to make it all work."
McLain has also opened some eyes in the NFL. He has received some interest from the Dallas Cowboys and other teams are expected to be checking on him.
"C.J. is a late bloomer," Sperduto said. "Someone will give him a shot. They would be foolish not to.
"It might take a little bit longer to get him into a flow or situation where he can succeed in the NFL. If over a period of time someone puts him on a practice squad and gives him time to develop, they won't be making a mistake."
McLain excelled as a linebacker and defensive end in high school and college, but he became a lineman in the Arena League. He admits it took some adjustment, but he credits line coach Bob Kronenberg with helping him with the fine points of playing the line, especially on the offensive side.
"The adjustments have been technical," McLain said. "It is still football. The main thing I do is run as hard and as fast as I can. You never stop until the whistle blows. Learning the different technical aspects is a small part.
"It helps guys like me to have someone like Bob as our coach who stresses techniques. I would have probably struggled a lot more this year playing against guys with more experience if it wasn't for my technique improving.
"It's a lot different on the line than when I was a linebacker or defensive end and standing up. I didn't really have to take on that many big guys at those positions. Now that I'm on the line I have to be a little stronger. I'm in the weight room all the time."
Except when he is in the backfield of an opposing team.
REECE BACK TO NFL?
Nashville fullback-linebacker Travis Reece led the league in rushing with 190 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries. He also had five touchdowns on pass receptions. Reece played in 1998 and 1999 for the Detroit Lions and may be headed back to the NFL this season. The Pittsburgh Steelers are expressing a strong interest and several other teams have added their names to the list of interested shoppers.
"A few teams are starting to get more videos of Travis," Sperduto said. "He is such a good football player. He can make plays all over the field. He is so underrated it's scary. We were very lucky to get him."
Nashville vs. San Jose
Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
GEC - ABC-TV