In the 3rd quarter of a 28-10 game, Missouri's standout defensive end Sheldon Richardson grabbed AJ McCarron by the ankle just as the junior signal-caller began to spin away from the rush. After AJ limped off the field, CBS cameras showed Alabama trainers tending to his knee. I turned to my friend John who always watched the games with me and said "There went the national championship."
That turned out to be a false alarm, but I'm sure I wasn't the only Alabama fan with visions of another natty dancing out of his head at that moment. When he went down against Missouri, McCarron was in the thick of the Heisman talk, but behind him the Tide had only a converted running back, a redshirt freshman who hadn't been a highly-rated freshman recruit, and a true freshman whose redshirt was being preserved. Quarterback is the most important position on the field, by far, and all Alabama's talent elsewhere probably couldn't have made up for the difference between top-notch quarterback play and what could only be expected to be below-average quarterback play.
In short, there were good reasons to fear for the season after that play, and Alabama fans should thank their lucky stars that McCarron made it through the season healthy enough to stay on the field, because there was a dizzying drop from first string to second string at Alabama quarterback in 2012. Whether the quarterback depth equation will have improved for 2013, and if so by how much, is a question that odds-makers calculating another Alabama championship run should study carefully. But before we look at the not-AJ picture, let's sit back for a moment first and enjoy the AJ view.
It's just splendid. At least in the Southeast, the very cows in the field know that McCarron is the only quarterback ever at the helm for two BCS championships, and if 2013 Alabama becomes the first team in the poll era (which started in 1936) to win three straight national championships, AJ's name will be writ in crimson flame across the national landscape, and in a way that will likely last.
Quarterbacks achieve celebrity with national championships--heck, even their girlfriends can tap into the fame machine. Obviously. But what's also obvious is that an average quarterback can win national championships if he is in the right place at the right time. So what is McCarron, an average quarterback?
Hardly. AJ led the nation in passing efficiency last year, easily the most important single stat for evaluating a quarterback. I'm not a huge fan of passing TDs as a QB-rating metric, but really, there's no arguing with McCarron's 30 TD passes to only 3 interceptions. His 10-1 TD-interception ratio was easily the best in the nation, with Gino Smith and Tito Sunseri, each at 7-1, next in line. If he maintains his current career 1.16% interception percentage, it will be the lowest in NCAA history.
Not only did he pile up those extremely impressive statistics, but he plays his best games on the very biggest stages. Not only has McCarron quarterbacked the Tide to two straight easy BCS National Championship Game wins, but he actually played his best game of the season in the BCSNCG both times. AJ had a good regular season in 2012, but in Miami he looked very, very NFL.
The only reason that 2012 gave to doubt McCarron was a stretch of not-so-great play late in the regular season, including a couple of middling performances in two of the biggest games of the season, one of which performances contributed greatly to Bama's only loss of the season. However, now we know that McCarron wasn't just choking for no reason, but instead was greatly hampered by dislocated ribs.
That makes it all the more likely that, just as AJ's performance in New Orleans against LSU in January 2012 signaled that we would see an improved McCarron in 2012, his stellar performance against Notre Dame this January probably means that he will be one of the very best quarterbacks in the nation in 2013. Johnny Football, Teddy Bridgewater, Aaron Murray and others will provide stiff competition, but the season will begin with McCarron squarely in the running not just for All-American honors, but for the little bronze dude with the air stiff-arm.
OK, that was fun. Now let's talk about depth.
The good thing is that it's bound to be better than 2012, when most of the backup touches went to a read-option quarterback, which is probably not a direction Nick Saban would've gone if he had confidence in any pro-style quarterback. But both the quarterbacks who played behind McCarron last year return, they both have the game experience (mostly but not entirely in blowouts) they garnered last season, and they both have a full year with Doug Nussmeier under their belts.
The aforementioned option quarterback is Blake Sims, and to be fair, Sims' passing chops probably aren't entirely lacking. He racked up big stats in high school as an all-purpose quarterback, and in 2012, along with running for 207 yards and 2 TDs, with a 6.2 yards per carry average, he completed 5 of his 10 passes for 77 yards without au pick.
But unless Sims becomes a little more comfortable in the drop-back situation, you have to figure that Saban is going to get back in his comfort zone with a pro-style quarterback if he can develop one to be relied on. The good news is that he has a ton of options--no less than four scholarshipped quarterbacks and a preferred walk-on will be taking their shot at Sims this spring.
One is the other returning QB who saw playing time last year, Phillip Ely, who was 3 of 4 for 75 yards and a TD in 2012. His 27-yard TD strike to Eddie Lacy against Mississippi St. in a somewhat competitive situation (24-0 early in the 4th quarter) was truly a thing of beauty--but one great pass does not make a great passer, and the fact that Ely gave up most of his time to an option quarterback doesn't strike me as a terrific sign of the staff's confidence in him.
Some say redshirt freshman Alec Morris has the inside track. The 6'3", 225-pound Morris certainly has the frame that scouts look for, and is said to have a big arm. There was also talk that the staff was ready to bust the redshirt off him if AJ went down in the BCSNCG, reminiscent of the talk about AJ before the Texas BCSNCG in 2010. But talk is talk. Morris was not highly-recruited out of high school, and he hasn't thrown a pass in college. What he can actually do on the field remains to be seen.
Then there are the new guys: three of ‘em, no less. All three are early graduates who are already on campus, so it's far from out of the question that one or more could compete seriously for the backup job. All three, though, are sub-200 pounds, which raises the question of whether they can be ready to take the pounding by September.
As Alabama's most highly recruited quarterback signee since Phillip Sims three years ago, Cooper Bateman leads the way. He's certainly got the arm strength: his first pass on this highlight reel goes 59 yards in the air and hits his man right in stride, and he makes multiple accurate 50+ yards throw on the film. Bateman was also clocked electronically at 4.58 in the 40, the fastest time among quarterbacks competing at last year's Elite 11 showcase event.
While Bateman may be Alabama's quarterback of the future, the future is probably not now, even if he can grasp the playbook in the spring. At 6'3" and 200 pounds (or less), he may yet be a bit slender for SEC pounding, but the most troublesome factor is that he was almost entirely a shotgun quarterback in high school. Meanwhile, the other scholarshipped freshman on board for the spring, Parker McLeod, has even more of a size problem, registering at 6'3" and somewhere around 185. McLeod's 2012 high school stats were, frankly, mediocre--53 of 94 for 541 yards, 4 TDs, 3 picks--and you have to think of him as a project.
Just in case the six scholarshipped guys aren't enough for you, throw in preferred walk-on Luke Del Rio, the son of 11-year pro and former USC All-American linebacker Jack Del Rio, now the Broncos' defensive coordinator. Del Rio turned down scholarship offers from Oklahoma St., UCLA and Oregon St. to walk on in Tuscaloosa. Like Bateman and McLeod, the 190-pound Del Rio probably needs to hit the weight room before competing seriously for SEC playing time, but he lit up opponents for 28 TDs to only 4 interceptions last year, impressed on the workout circuit, and has to be considered a serious candidate for future playing time.
So hope for the best: the best health for AJ, that is. Bama may be readier to replace him than was the case in 2012, but readier doesn't mean ready.