(Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)
"You always try to feature the players you have on offense. I certainly think AJ is a guy who has proven that he's trustworthy to do the kind of things when you open up the offense not to make the kind of mistakes with turning the ball over that can really hurt your team. I think you can make a lot more explosive plays that way." – Nick Saban
After a quarterback "controversy" that carried over to game three of the 2011 season, Alabama returns a national title winning QB but not the man who pushed him, or anyone else with game experience for that matter, making A.J. McCarron arguably the most important player for the Tide’s success in 2012. Not that there’s anything terribly unsettling about that. McCarron threw the least amount of interceptions (5) among SEC starters last season and his 66.8% completion average was best in the conference as well. His 24-of-34 for 234 yards performance in the BCS Championship title game against one of the best defenses in college football earned him game MVP honors, and he managed it all with a dislocated shoulder suffered against Arkansas that frequently had him in too much pain to practice. "I thought I broke my collarbone, because my bone was poking into my shoulder pads," McCarron says.
With a firm grasp of the offense and the need for him to step up and be the focus, McCarron is poised for an even better season in 2012. The numbers last season were already impressive, but the growth in maturity and leadership that were on display through the end of last season and into the spring and fall are what will ultimately define this season for McCarron. "They brought me along gradually last year and taught me how to play the game."
Both Saban and new OC Doug Nussmeier have been effusive in their praise of the junior, and it’s clear they are expecting his development to continue despite his previous accomplishments. After the BCS Championship game, Saban gave ESPN viewers a glimpse at the trust the staff has placed in McCarron.
"I said 'Look, AJ, I have total faith, trust and confidence that you'll make good choices and decisions in this game because we've got to put that in you. We're going to have to throw the ball to be able to move the ball against this defense to be able to win. How are you going to be able to handle that? How are you going to be able to manage that? Can't force it. Got to take what the defense gives you.' He did a great job of that in that game. I really trust him. I think it's going to be important that he continues to show the kind of leadership he's shown in this offense all season so we have the kind of offense that really can be productive for us as our young defense sort of develops."
Though Nussmeier wasn’t on staff for the BCS Championship, he’s already expressed his belief that McCarron will continue to develop this sason. "I think he continues to get better every day," Nussmeier said. "He works extremely hard. He's very conscientious. I'm really excited about what the future holds for him. I think he has a very, very high ceiling."
McCarron has chimed in on his development as well, from not just learning the offense but to the growth in maturity. "When you first get into this game you just want to throw touchdowns and not always take what the defense gives you. I feel like I do that as of now, and I have to keep doing that."
"I think I'm the same player -- a little wiser of the game," McCarron said. "But other than that, I feel like mid to last part of the season, I felt like I was on top of everything. I knew the game. The game slowed down. It was definitely easier than it was at the beginning of the season."
But finding a backup for McCarron is still a priority. With the transfer of Phillip Sims, the Tide is currently looking at redshirt freshman Phillip Ely, true freshman Alec Morris, and sophomore Blakes Sims, who spent all of last season and the spring working at running back.
The front-runner so far is Ely. A former three star recruit from Tampa, FL, Ely split time with Phillip Sims running the second team offense during the A Day game, completing 9-of-12 passes for 135 yards with no TDs or Ints. Saban spoke about his development over the spring at a Crimson Caravan event shortly after the transfer of Sims, and stressed the importance of the untested QBs developing over the fall.
"[Ely] improved a lot. It's critical for us that he continues to develop. It's going to be critical for us that the freshman that we recruited, when he gets there, he develops as well. We've always been a little bit one quarterback short in terms of numbers, so all those guys developing is the only way that we can have the kind of depth that we need at that position."
Through fall, Ely has the edge over true freshman Alec Morris thanks to his time in the system. After the most recent scrimmage, Saban praised Ely’s execution.
"Phillip Ely probably showed that he has a little more knowledge and experience, managed the game a little bit better, executed a little bit better," Saban said. "You know, the freshman played like a freshman. He got a little bit rattled out there, had a hard time managing the huddle, got a little bit antsy in the pocket sometimes."
Whoever winds up in the backup role, though, hopefully their only game action will come in mop up duty since it’s quite clear the focus of the offense will be McCarron, and will likely only go as far as his arm can carry it.