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Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain (55) salutes the crowd after making a tackle for a loss against the Cleveland Browns in the second quarter at the O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Sunday, October 16, 2011. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

NAPA -- As the NFL trial of Rolando McClain plods into its third year, the Raiders are watching and hoping. Those fans still withholding judgment are holding their breath or shaking their heads.

The case of the heralded inside linebacker, they all believe, and rightfully so, should have been settled.

We should know by now whether McClain has the goods to be a terrific player, a strong leader and a dedicated professional.

But the evidence through two seasons is not enough to fairly establish McClain's guilt or innocence on the charge of whether he is an NFL bust.

Consider 2012 the pivotal phase.

"I want to build off what I did last year, and that's just to get better each and every day," McClain said Monday morning, after the team's first practice. "It starts here in training camp, and that's where I'll start. Hopefully, not only will I get better but the defense will get better, and we'll improve a lot from last year.

"I didn't play to the best of my ability, and neither did our defense. We all can improve."

Clear-eyed observers would call this an understatement. Oakland's defense usually was dreadful and occasionally was abysmal. It made a habit of committing errors both tactical and technical. It routinely lacked cohesion and too often was tender in the middle, the territory assigned to McClain.


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This is the season in which the Raiders, whose new brain trust has no emotional investment, determine if they want to build their revamped defense around McClain, 23.

This is McClain's chance, likely his last in Oakland, to show whether he can make the plays he previously botched, demonstrate the leadership he was advertised as bringing and display the conduct and character that sets an example for those around him.

"It's not a one-time shot," first-year head coach Dennis Allen said. "It's a consistency thing.

"Rolando was drafted where he was drafted to come in here and be an impact player for us, and to come in here and be a leader on this defense. It's our job to try and get him to be that."

Nobody is willing to say McClain has been a failure -- though, on the Patrick Willis scale of grading inside linebackers, he indisputably has been -- perhaps because there are just enough snapshots of potential to suggest McClain can be everything the Raiders thought they were getting when they drafted the Alabama product eighth overall in 2010.

McClain was a Butkus Award winner for the national championship Crimson Tide. Scouts described him as powerful and instinctive, his personality as forceful and mature. It all sounded so promising -- equal parts Ray Lewis, Jon Beason and the late Junior Seau.


But McClain's career has been unimpressive, troubling and occasionally embarrassing.

There have been disturbing off-field incidents, including one in which McClain was convicted in May and sentenced to 180 days in prison, though now under appeal. There was nothing mature about the photo of McClain grinning while being placed in handcuffs.

As undesirable as such activity may be for the Raiders, they also know they haven't gotten a terrific player. Summoned to help solve a chronically underperforming unit, McClain has been an additional problem.

Allen is saying that can be reversed, that McClain can thrive in Oakland.

"But it's easy to sit here and say it," the coach conceded. "We gotta do it. It's our job to push him to be that, and it's his job to commit to doing the things that are necessary to get that done."

Richard Seymour, a 12-year defensive line veteran and the most decorated member of the Raiders, sees the challenge facing McClain and is hopeful he can conquer it.

"He can be as good as he wants to be," Seymour said before a brief pause, "but he definitely has some growing to do in that area."

Seymour paused once more, this time for several seconds, before concluding he is "encouraged" by what he has seen so far in 2012. Part of that, he says, is attributed to the new leadership and coaching staff.

"They demand a lot out of the players," Seymour said. "And they won't accept any excuses. They're a smart staff, and they understand what they want. They put a lot on his shoulders."

Coaching staff demands have led McClain to the doorstep of inner conflict. He wants to blend in; he's being asked to stand up. And out. Like, you know, all great inside backers.

"My nature is I'm a quiet shy guy, and I keep to myself," he said. "But coaches are asking me to get away from that, basically, so I'm trying to do it, and I'm fighting with my own self.

"But the guys are making it easier. They're looking for me to lead, and right now, I'm leading. I just gotta keep it up."

Keep up the leading. Improve the performance. McClain is confronting an early-career crossroads. Count on him to bring this NFL trial to a conclusion, one way or another.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/1montepoole.