- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

IRVING, Texas (AP) - Rolando McClain dances around questions about how much he loves football and whether he enjoyed training camp.

The new Dallas linebacker keeps getting asked because he walked away from the game twice in Baltimore after Oakland dumped its former top 10 pick just three seasons into his career.

Ready or not, McClain is expected to start Sunday’s opener against San Francisco. The Cowboys apparently have seen enough to believe he’s the replacement in the middle for Sean Lee, whose season-ending knee injury led them to give the Ravens a seventh-round pick just to see if they could rekindle McClain’s interest.

The former Alabama star remains coy with reporters about his commitment. McClain said he “loved life” when asked if he still loved football during camp in California, and said he had “no expectations” days before his first football game in almost two years.

“If you live up or care about somebody’s expectations, you’ll always let them down,” McClain said earlier this week. “So you set your own expectations.”

Owner Jerry Jones let his expectations run wild almost as soon as McClain reported for camp, frequently bringing up his name without being asked and at one point saying the Cowboys have “a chance to pull one out of our hat” with the move to get him.

McClain skipped practices sporadically through camp, with coach Jason Garrett mostly saying he was just getting back in football shape.

During a steamy morning practice earlier this week, McClain appeared to injure something during an individual drill and spent the next few minutes fiddling with a knee wrap instead of participating in the work.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” McClain said later when asked about the knee. “I’m ready. I’m great.”

The Cowboys might need him to be great if they want to improve on the league’s most porous defense from a year ago. The defensive line is filled with questions, and the linebackers are unsettled too.

Bruce Carter was supposed to start on the weak side in Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme, but will be on the strong side instead. Justin Durant, the early pick as Lee’s replacement, will call the defensive signals and be on the weak side, a critical spot in run support.

McClain’s ability in pass coverage was the biggest reason he landed in the middle.

“I expect him to be really a heck of a linebacker for us,” said Marinelli, who replaced Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator a year after both joined the staff to implement a scheme change. “I think he has great range. He’s got length. He’s smart. He’s a really physical player. So we just have to get him going and see how it works out from there.”

And McClain still has his moments of passion, even with reporters.

“I still love the game like I’m an 8-, 9-year-old kid,” he said. “It’s just about getting back into it, building chemistry with some of these guys, some trust and just playing and having run really.”

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