TAMPA — Former USF assistant coach Dan McCarney likes nicknames, and Terrell McClain's came to him almost instantly when he arrived on campus last fall. Ever since, for his teammates and coaches, McClain has been "Dancing Bear."
"First time I saw him, I called him that. He's just built like a bear, but he's so light on his feet," said McCarney, now the defensive line coach at Florida. "Some nicknames stick really well, and that one did. From the start, I just thought he was a tremendous player and a great kid."
The moniker also fits the demeanor of the 6-foot-3, 306-pound nose tackle, who barely played last season but is starting this fall.
"He's always pleasant, always smiling, always fun to be around," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose team could use a little dancing in its final three games.
As USF tries to break out of a 1-3 skid, McClain is literally at the center of a run defense that must contain Rutgers' rushing attack at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday.
In its six victories, USF has allowed an average of 67.5 rushing yards. In three losses, the Bulls have allowed an average of 124.
"It all starts on the D-line. It's all on us stopping the run," McClain said. "It's very important. If we can stop the run and force them to pass, it gives us more time for our (defensive backs) to get picks."
McClain, from Pensacola, chose USF over offers from Alabama and Miami, and he was recruited by LSU and Auburn. He liked that he had family in Tampa — his mother graduated from Leto High School, and her parents still live in Tampa. Lynn McClain remembers being impressed by the sense of family at USF, and was sold on the Bulls when she opened her mailbox in Pensacola one day and found that all of Leavitt's assistants had sent handwritten notes to her son.
McClain's family has moved to Everett, Wash., where his mother is stationed in the Navy, working as a dental hygienist. She has not been able to see him play much in person — she was stationed abroad on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean his senior year — but saw him in this year's opener and watches whenever the Bulls are on television.
"I love watching him on TV, seeing him doing me proud," said Lynn McClain, whose younger son, Jerome, is a defensive end who hopes to play college football.
When McClain came to USF, the "big brother" assigned to him was another defensive lineman from Pensacola, defensive end George Selvie, a consensus All-American last season. Both have missed time this season with ankle injuries but have returned at key positions.
"He comes off the ball real well — he's not one of those big guys who can't move," said Selvie, USF's only defensive lineman with more tackles than McClain, who has 24. "It's good to see him doing well. You have to encourage him a little bit here and there, but he understands the defense and knows what he's doing. He wants to win, and I like that."
McClain keeps a low-key attitude off the field, happy to watch reruns of his favorite show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when he gets a break from football and classwork. When USF's seniors called a players-only meeting last week, one thing they stressed was getting back to having fun playing football, something McClain wants to see as well.
"We just need to come together more and bounce back from these two losses," he said. "We went through the same thing last year and came back, so we know what it feels like to come back on top."
Leavitt concedes that McClain probably should have redshirted last season, pressed into duty after multiple injuries to USF's defensive tackles. He totaled seven tackles — three for losses — and the experience helped ease his transition to being a starter this season.
"He's still trying to find his way through it," Leavitt said. "Athletically, he's a tremendous player. He's got a lot of ability, great feet, great size. When he's playing, he's playing well. I think he's got an awfully good future. He's a neat kid, loaded with talent."