If you can name Alabama’s starting quarterbacks over the past 50 or 60 years, you are not really special. Thousands of Crimson Tide fans could do it with a fair degree of accuracy. But if you have BEEN one of those quarterbacks, now that’s special. The latest in that special position is AJ McCarron.
The most notable thing about A.J. McCarron is that he has quarterbacked Alabama to back-to-back national championships and is back for a final season to have a chance at making history, becoming the first to quarterback a college team to three consecutive national championships.
Last year he became the all-time Crimson Tide leader in career passing touchdowns with 49 and also became the single season record-holder at Alabama as he threw for 30 touchdowns. Against that, he was intercepted only three times in 2012. That’s a primary reason he was the national leader in passing efficiency. He has thrown a Bama record 291 consecutive passes without an interception.
Here is the fourth in a series in which we see how other special people see the position of Bama quarterback and, more important, how they see Alabama quarterback A J McCarron:
Gary Hollingsworth made the transition from starting quarterback for Bill Curry (with Homer Smith as offensive coordinator) to starting quarterback for Gene Stallings (with Mal Moore as offensive coordinator) as he was the starter in 1989 and 1990.
Hollingsworth said, “Obviously it [being the Alabama quarterback] means a great deal but that has as much to do with the guys that have played before you and now you have guys like AJ that are playing behind you. There is a great tradition of Alabama quarterbacks that have had a lot of success. To be a small part of that was quite an honor for me.
“I’m very impressed with him. He has great confidence with the way he handles the team. At the same time he has some fire about him too. You can tell he has accepted the role of being the leader of the team. I think folks look to him and he seems to respond. He does the things you look for in a quarterback. He is a leader, protects the ball and makes plays when called upon to do so. I don’t think he puts it on himself to win games because of the way the team is set up with the defense and running game. He is still called on to make plays because defenses stack the line and he is forced to throw the ball. In those times he comes through and makes those plays.
“He has played really well in some of the biggest games. Those are some of the best games he has played. When the pressure is there he seems to come through and I think the team plays well around him because of the success he has had in big games. Obviously the coaches have faith in him because they put the ball in his hands in the BCS National Championship Game against LSU a few years ago. The game plan was to throw the ball on first down. He was a younger quarterback that had not been asked to win a lot of games at that point in his career. They made the decision to put the ball in his hands and that shows a ton of confidence by the coaching staff in him from what they had seen in games, preparation and practice.”
There are many comparisons to Jay Barker when discussing AJ McCarron. That’s partly because both were quarterbacks on national championship teams and partly because AJ is chasing Jay for title of winningest Alabama quarterback. Barker was 35-2-1 as a starter in his four years (1991-94). McCarron would have to quarterback an undefeated season (14-0) this year to have a record of 39-2.
Barker said being an Alabama quarterback “meant the world to me. You grow up understanding just how big it is as far as being a quarterback at Alabama and just being a quarterback in general but especially there because of the recognition you get, the expectations that are on you and just the amount of pressure you face during your time there. When I was coming along talk radio was just hitting its stride and becoming very impactful and it was like the social media of the time. That exposure was getting bigger and bigger. It was a great experience. Going into it I never knew what it was going to be like until I was engrossed in it. I never knew how important it was to so many Alabama fans that you go out there and play well and represent The University of Alabama in a really positive way. One of the greatest experiences of my life.
“When you’re young you’re just kind of going through it but now as I look back I see what AJ is going through and my perspective on him playing the game is a lot different than probably other people. When people are getting upset for various reasons a lot of times they don’t really understand the game or why something happened. Do you realize how hard it is just to complete a pass down the field with all those guys running at you with the timing that has to happen in order to be successful? He’s been so successful.
“They call him a game manager but he is more than that. He’s a winner. He knows how to win. Great talent at quarterback can make all the throws but the surprising thing that people don’t know about him is he has great feet in the pocket. When he gets outside the pocket he can make plays. He’s got a lot of speed and adds another dimension to his game. If he’s not the best to ever come through Alabama he is one of the best. From a record standpoint, wins and losses, to two back-to-back championships, he has a chance to win three. With 30 touchdowns and 3 interceptions last year, you can’t do any better than that. He understands the idea of managing the offense. I don’t mean that in a negative way. All of us as quarterbacks are game managers. We have to manage the down and distance. We have to manage our teammates, play calls, not turning the ball over and putting our team in bad situations.
“He’s as good as anybody. He reminds me so much of Tom Brady - their size, throwing, their demeanor. They have so much passion for the game but yet they also learned how to keep it in check. I’ll never forget that LSU game last year where they came back and were able to win with that screen pass he threw to T.J. Yeldon. He went to the sideline and broke down emotionally, crying. People just don’t realize. That is probably the most pressure for him even though he played in a national championship game, he never really had to come back like that and win it and do it in that kind of environment. He was like, man, I did it. I can do this. I was a big part of why we were able to win this game. He made some really key throws not just to T.J. Yeldon but to some other receivers to get themselves in position to come back and win that game. When you go through that it is just an unbelievable feeling but it’s also the stress that you under in that point in time to make it happen, it’s a relief when you get to the sideline that you’re able to get it done.
“I think his love for the game. I understand from the coaches I talk to down there that he is a gym rat that loves to come in and study and wants to understand every piece to the puzzle. I think for me the great quarterbacks are the ones who really understand not just what they are doing but what everybody is doing. They have a real feel for those things. The other thing that impressed me was that whole thing when Coach Saban spanked him coming off the field as a red-shirt freshman. It was real embarrassing to him but at that point in time he realized I just had a great throw but it wasn’t where I was supposed to go with the football. Coach Saban let me have it pretty hard and I need to make sure I’m doing the proper things. I think in that discipline moment, it clicked for him. He said I’ve got to play within the system and I’ve got to play within myself. If I do those things and just trust my coaching staff, trust my head coach, trust the players around me, I can have success. He saw it with Greg McElroy, a great role model for him and in John Parker Wilson, a little bit ahead of him. So two other quarterbacks who were great role models for him in how you should play the game.”
Andrew Zow was recruited by Gene Stallings, first played under Mike DuBose, and finished under Dennis Franchione. His career was 1998-2001. He is best remembered for his touchdown pass to Jason McAddley just before halftime in a 31-7 rout of Auburn in Auburn in 2001.
Zow said being the Alabama quarterback “means a lot. I was blessed with the opportunity to play quarterback at The University of Alabama. I didn’t know how important it was to this state. Being from Florida, it was definitely new for me. You’re recognized every day. If you play for Alabama everyone loves you especially if you’re winning.
“AJ has taken full advantage of his opportunity. Every time he steps on the field, he puts it all out there and does a great job. What he is doing now is unheard of. I consider him one of the top quarterbacks to come through Tuscaloosa. Just by watching him play, you can see he has a passion to succeed and displays great leadership. I think he grew up after losing to LSU at home a few years ago and had a chance to play them for the second time in the BCS National Championship. You could tell the difference. He has improved every year. The guys around him make a lot of plays for him but he definitely is making more plays with his arm.
“His strong arm is impressive. He can throw the ball deep and he is not afraid to fire it in there. A lot of people have a strong arm with no touch or accuracy. He has the ability to throw an accurate ball. What I have seen in the past few years he has really improved in that category.”
Zow was sharing time in his Bama career with Tyler Watts, now a member of the Crimson Tide team covering Alabama on television replays. Watts was Bama quarterback 1999-2001. Watts said, “I don’t think the significance of it has or ever will sink in completely because I’ve never viewed myself as super whatever. Having done it, it was the next step I didn’t really realize the significance of it. It was the next challenge. You don’t understand what you’re doing. It takes after you get done to understand the importance and significance of playing the position. I know that it is a great honor. At the same time I don’t view myself as extraordinary. I remember the first time I dressed out for practice. I had chills running up and down my back because at that point you are able to reflect back on all these years of dreaming, hard work and finally getting to experience it. The first time you run out of the tunnel, the same thing but then you realize very quickly, you better work hard to have an opportunity to play. Those emotions fade and you get onto the job at hand.
“I think AJ is under appreciated by the national media. I think it’s extremely impressive what he has been able to do. Everybody wants to talk about all the talent around him. He does have a ton of talent around him but the ability to not only get them the ball but make as few mistakes as he does make that is what impresses me. Anyone can go out there and sling the ball around but you go out there and throw two or three interceptions in a game and all of a sudden you’re not beating people by three and four touchdowns. You’re probably fighting for your life or getting beat. When he has to make a play he is able to make it. That is most impressive the last few years. His confidence continues to grow. You can see him not dwelling on the last series or the last quarter or last game. He is constantly trying to go out there and do better.
“He plays within himself. The biggest challenge any quarterback has is trying to make a play when one is not there or trying to do something they are not capable of. He knows what he is capable of doing, what the coaches want him to do, what his offense allows him to do and he doesn’t push the envelope too much but he is aggressive at the same time. There is a fine line sometimes. A lot of times quarterbacks can get timid. When you see a quarterback not making many mistakes they are not taking risks or chances. You still see him throwing the ball down the field instead of dumping the ball off on five-yard drag routes or short crossing patterns. He plays within himself and the system. That’s what a good player does. They do what is asked of them and they make plays when they have to be made. He has great control over the ball and good accuracy. A great stat is yards after the catch. Are you putting the ball in a place where your receiver can pick up extra yardage or is he having to stop and catch it behind him. His passes are placed where they need to be to give his guys an opportunity to make plays after they catch the ball.”