It’s been a whirlwind 14 months in the life of Alabama’s junior quarterback AJ McCarron.
Think about it. Fourteen months ago, the only thing you really knew about McCarron is that he was an untested sophomore who was taking on the responsibility of replacing Tide favorite Greg McElroy, the quarterback who led Alabama to the 2009 national championship.
As a redshirt freshman in 2010, McCarron appeared in 13 games, primarily as a holder. He did get in eight games as a quarterback and was on the money throwing the football. He finished 30 of 48 passing for 349 yards and three touchdowns.
But despite the impressive numbers when he was under center, he was considered the Achilles heel of the Alabama offense when the 2010 season opened. Throughout last season, McCarron did two things well — he handed the ball off to Trent Richardson and he continued to lead Alabama to wins.
And, oh yes, he continued to put up good numbers throwing the football. He went 219 of 328 for 2,634 yards for 16 touchdowns against just five interceptions. In 13 games, he led Alabama to 12 wins and the school’s 14th national title.
But most fans gave the credit for the title to (a) Richardson; (b) the defense; and (c) just about anybody else but McCarron. He was known as a game manager not as a player that can put a team on his shoulders and pull out a victory when the chips were down.
All that began to change when McCarron led Alabama over LSU 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game.
The metamorphosis of McCarron was officially underway. Since that January night in the Superdome, he has gone from game-manager to the most efficient passer in the nation, which is what he is going into the first Saturday of November.
“We’re starting to see that AJ’s more than a game manager,” said Tide center Barrett Jones after McCarron threw for 306 yards four touchdown passes in the Tennessee win. “He was really explosive. They brought a lot of guys in the box, we needed to throw the ball and we did that. It was awesome.”
Being labeled a game manager can be a negative thing for a quarterback, but Alabama coach Nick Saban is not one who ascribes to that way of thinking.
“To me, you can’t be a good quarterback unless you are a good game manager,” Saban said. “You have the ball in your hand every time, and you are making some kind of choice and decision what to do with it. Whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on or where you throw it in the passing game. You have to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions.
“I don’t think it’s fair to AJ because I’ve said he’s a really good game manager for us that it’s like, that means he doesn’t do anything. He does everything. I don’t think you can be a good quarterback unless you are a really good game manager. That’s the ultimate compliment to me.
“You have to have the ability to make plays, but we’ve certainly been able to make a few with our quarterback this year, and I think it’s going to be important that we continue to be able to do that as well,” the Tide coach said.
Last weekend, McCarron led Alabama to a comfortable 38-7 win over then-undefeated Mississippi State team. He finished the game on the sidelines after a slight back injury took him out of the game, but, before he left the game, he gave the Crimson Tide an insurmountable lead. He was 16-of-23 for 208 yards passing and two touchdowns and stretched his school-record streak of passes without an interception to 262 passes.
On the season, McCarron is 122 of 177 for 1,684 yards with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s not just being a game manager, that’s how he’s become the nation’s most efficient passer. He has spread the wealth among his targets, something his teammates appreciate.
“AJ spreads the ball around and keeps a balance. He can’t focus on just the run or the pass,” said running back Eddie Lacy. “Our passing game is very good.”
And AJ’s play is a big reason why Alabama is entering this weekend’s game against LSU without a blemish on its record.
“We have an old saying that I’m sure our fans won’t like this either: ‘If every offensive series ends with a kick, whether it’s a punt, a field goal or an extra point, that’s pretty good — could be worse.’ When you give the ball away to the other guy that’s never a good thing and has a really significant impact on the outcome of games,” said Saban.
“AJ has done a good job of taking care of the ball. I think that’s going to be really important as we continue to progress through the season, especially against teams like Mississippi State that are a big take-away team, and we didn’t turn the ball over.
“(LSU) is a big take-away team that we are playing this week, and I think it is going to be important that we don’t turn the ball over,” said Saban.