A.J. McCarron almost didn’t get the chance to be where he is now. Not because he wasn’t good enough, but because he was too good. In 2009, when McCarron was a true freshman, he emerged late in the season as the back-up to Greg McElroy. Alabama was battling for a national championship, and if Coach Nick Saban had been forced to find a substitute for McElroy with a chance to win a late season game, he was going to go with McCarron.
Instead, McCarron – who warmed up several times late in the 2009 season – did not play and was able to have four more years of eligibility, three of them (it would seem) as the starter.
McCarron is confident he’ll have his third starting season this year. Asked if he explained to the handful of freshman quarterbacks in camp the value of being redshirted, McCarron said, “They ain’t getting on the field while I’m here.”
Although McCarron was laughing, no one doubts his intent.
He added, “No, I help them, and they know that. I help them in any way. I watch film with them, try to share my knowledge, to better themselves. Right now is the biggest time for them, while they’re not having to focus on other team’s defenses; they’re focused on how to master our offense and what we do. I definitely help them whenever I can.”
Anyone who checked out the statistics from Alabama’s first football scrimmage of fall camp last Saturday probably focused on Amari Cooper’s receiving numbers. The upcoming sophomore, a Freshman All-America last year and pre-season All-America this year, had just four catches. But those four receptions went for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
Bama H-Back Jalston Fowler said that Cooper was the scrimmage standout. “He was out there balling,” said Fowler.
Alabama star safety HaHa Clinton-Dix said Cooper “is very explosive off the line. He's quick, he can get open. He runs his routes very well. Very explosive.”
Ahem! Those receptions by Amari Cooper in the Alabama scrimmage were thrown by Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, who completed 13 of 21 passes for 267 yards with one interception.
On Monday, McCarron was asked about the hook-ups with Cooper. “He got open and we made plays,” was the taciturn response.
It’s hard to imagine, but it may be that McCarron’s best is yet to come. He’s not ready to say that this is the finest group of receivers he’s worked with, but he does think that “The chemistry is probably best. I’ve spent the most time with them. It’s definitely a good group for me and what we have going this year. Hopefully we can keep progressing.”
It’s not just Cooper, who set an Alabama record with 11 touchdown receptions and broke Julio Jones’s freshman records with his 59 catches for 1,000 yards.
Alabama also returns Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones. Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White, who have also been starters, and Chris Black are returning from injuries. And there are newcomers at wide receiver, not to mention capable receivers at tailback, H-back, and tight end.
But the stick that stirs this passing game is McCarron, the 6-4, 214-pound fifth-year senior from Mobile. In leading Alabama to its second consecutive national championship last year, he led the nation in passing efficiency. He completed 211 of 314 passes with a Bama record 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Clinton-Dix has to face McCarron in practice. “It’s very tough,” said the junior safety. “He’s one of the top quarterbacks in this league. He’s a great quarterback.
“He knows how to look you off in the middle of the field. He sells [play action] very well whether it’s run or pass.”
Even though McCarron is a proven commodity, a man in the August conversation for the Heisman Trophy, he has no let-up.
I’m pushing every day. Any of the coaches will tell you I’m the hardest person on myself. I always push toward perfection. I don’t ever focus on only one thing. I think I need to work on some things more than other, but I’m trying to push all-around craft.
McCarron, who missed the late stages of the scrimmage when someone stepped on his foot, bruising it, said he enjoyed the Sunday off day, the first day off since Bama started practice on Aug. 2. There have also been a handful of two-a-day workouts, including another Monday. “It was very needed,” said McCarron, who joined his coaches and teammates for the annual Squad Sunday service at Calvary Baptist Church.
He has also watched videotape of the scrimmage and came to this conclusion:
“We’ve got to get better,” he said. “It’s as simple as that, all the way around. We have to get better. We’ve got to play better football.”