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10 Days ‘Til Kickoff: AJ McCarron

Easily one of the most accomplished quarterbacks of the modern era, you either loved him…or you didn’t. His contributions to Tide football cannot be questioned, however.

Alabama v Penn State
McCarron was tailor-made to play quarterback for Nick Saban.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

For the person tabbed to play quarterback for the University of Alabama, the experience can be a blessing or a curse. Held up to the bright lights of historically great signal callers who wore the crimson and white, some have failed to live up to expectations, sputtering into obscurity while drawing the ire of disappointed Alabama fans. Others have used the opportunity to shine, to transcend, to carve out the kind of gridiron fame that is only possible in a football-obsessed state like Alabama.

AJ McCarron definitely falls into the latter grouping: a gunslinger from Mobile, a survivor of a horrific and nearly fatal childhood accident, a cocky, brash leader with an ego nearly as big as his arm. McCarron had the swagger of Joe Namath, the ice-cold nerve of Ken Stabler in the clutch, and the championship stature of the legendary Bart Starr. A man with an affinity for jet skis, chest tattoos and a particularly attractive Auburn grad/ model, AJ McCarron is a man of many parts.

Love him or hate him, McCarron set the standard for quarterbacks in the Saban era of Alabama football. Sure, Greg McElroy was the first QB to lead Bama to the Promised Land under Saban, but McCarron personified exactly what Saban wants in a QB: a man who doesn’t make mistakes, who marshals his team in clutch situations, who has the skill to make the big play on the off chance that the Tide’s stellar defense or pounding running game can’t get the job done alone.

In recognition of the 10 (count ‘em, 10) remaining days until the kickoff of the 2016 college football season, we celebrate the career of one of Alabama’s greatest quarterbacks…#10, AJ McCarron.

Early Years

Born to Tony and Dee Dee McCarron, McCarron immediately developed a love for football. That is, after surviving a near deadly accident on Mobile’s Dog River at the mere age of 5. McCarron was almost killed during a jet ski accident that left him mangled and hospitalized for months. However, young AJ was a survivor, and the experience produced a charitable streak and a place in his heart for infirmed children. Years later, as the Tide QB, he routinely visited local children’s hospitals and befriended the patients who found themselves in a position not dissimilar from his own as a child.

McCarron began to play football shortly thereafter, playing his park league ball at Mobile’s Trimmier and Municipal parks. There, he met a young Mark Barron, as the two were teammates long before setting foot in Bryant Denny Stadium. In fourth grade, McCarron started at St. Paul’s Preparatory School, an affluent Episcopal institution in the heart of Mobile’s old-money Spring Hill community. Always a bit of a bad boy, McCarron got the coaching he needed at St. Paul’s to develop into a top-flight quarterback, ultimately leading the Saints to a 14-1 record and state 5A championship as a junior. With his star rising, the coveted quarterback appeared on the recruiting radar of many SEC teams, including Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee.

However, a Bama fan from childhood, there was only one school that held sway over McCarron’s heart as his college decision drew near. In 2008, the Army All-American committed to the Crimson Tide, and he was the only quarterback signee in the 2009 recruiting class.

The Capstone

Highly touted coming into Alabama, McCarron sat as a redshirt in his first year on campus, an understudy and heir apparent to the Tide’s McElroy. The next season, McCarron was the top back-up for McElroy in his redshirt freshman season, playing in nine games and posting modest stats during the Tide’s 10-3 season. He threw his first touchdown to the legendary Julio Jones that year, a 29-yard strike. He posted 389 yards with three touchdowns in mostly mop-up duty.

While many forecasted that McCarron would eventually succeed McElroy under center in 2011, the starting position was not a foregone conclusion for the young Mobilian. After all, the Tide had also signed the highly-rated Phillip Sims in 2010. The quarterback competition went through the spring and (to the chagrin of the Tide faithful) stretched into the fall, with neither player seizing the reigns and staking claim to the position. In fact, McCarron and Sims were named co-starters for the Tide’s first game against Kent State in 2011. However, though the term “co-starter” was used early in that season, McCarron began to separate himself from Sims, throwing for 226 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the Tide’s 48-7 opening win.

McCarron had planted his flag on the starting quarterback role, and continued to prove his case in his first road start against Penn State in a 27-11 win. McCarron’s stats weren’t dominant, with only 163 yards and no touchdowns, but his command of the game and percolating ability proved he was the more able of the two competing QBs for the starting position. He went on to lead Alabama to a 38-14 win over Arkansas in his first SEC start, and so began the forging of McCarron’s Alabama legend.

The quarterback led Alabama to an 11-1 record in the regular season as a redshirt sophomore, with the Tide’s only loss coming in the “Game of the Century” against #1 LSU in Tuscaloosa. While McCarron didn’t have a terrible game, he did throw what was his first interception of the season against the Tigers. Despite the loss, Alabama benefitted from the fickle hand of fate, and in a circumstance that changed the very landscape of college football, the Tide was slated for a rematch with LSU in the Sugar Bowl BCS National Championship Game.

McCarron and the Tide offense pulled a complete 180 from their previous contest with the Tigers, showing explosiveness on offense the likes of which the Tigers could not counter. The connection between McCarron and receiver Kevin Norwood was Tiger poison, as the pair victimized Tyran Mathieu and the LSU secondary early and often on the biggest stage in college football. In all, McCarron put up 234 yards on the vaunted future NFL-laden Tiger secondary, and helped the Tide win its 14th national championship.

Overall, McCarron had a stellar season as a redshirt sophomore, throwing for 2,634 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He was a 66.8% passer with an average of 202.6 yards passing per game. He endeared himself to his head coach with his ability to protect the ball, a trend that continued later on in McCarron’s career.

Coming off of their second national championship of the Saban era, the Tide entered the 2012 season as a presumptive favorite to make yet another run at the title. Though McCarron’s exploits in the 2011 campaign had already made him a legend in the eyes of many Tide faithful, it was his performance in 2012 that cemented him in Crimson Tide lore. Alabama sailed through the first half of its schedule, with the Tide defense proving itself worthy of the hype as a historically great unit. But it was McCarron’s ability and confidence as a signal caller that separated the Tide from their fellow contenders, and at no time was that more obvious than in the Tide’s match-up with LSU in Death Valley.

With a chip on the shoulder, LSU lured Alabama into a bayou slugfest on a November night, hoping to even the score following their embarrassing defeat in the previous BCS Championship Game. The Tigers proved a match for the Tide, with the two teams trading body blows deep into the fourth quarter. Unlike in the previous January, the Tide’s offense was stymied by LSU in large part, with McCarron being held to a rancid 10-for-22 performance with 93 yards passing. That is, until the final drive of the game.

The Tide fell behind late by a score of 17-14, with one last chance to even the score…or snatch the lead as time dwindled. Behind, in enemy territory, against a Tiger defense that had the Tide snuffed for most of the night, McCarron stepped under center. In a mere 43 seconds, the steely Tide quarterback completed three clutch passes to move the Tide into field goal range at the Tiger 28. After throwing an incompletion into the end zone, the Tide faced a second and 10 with little time left to marshal a winning play.

While it wasn’t his most dynamic athletic pass of the season, McCarron’s next play was the stuff of legend. The called play was a screen, with Tide running back T.J. Yeldon releasing a block and drifting out to the left as guard Chance Warmack pulled in front. Half of the LSU defense read the screen, but Jalen Mills bit hard. McCarron patiently read the opportunity correctly and dumped the screen to Yeldon, who dipped and darted into the end zone to seize the victory for the Tide and keep their undefeated season alive. It was the perfect drive to personify what made McCarron great: he was not the most athletic quarterback in the game, he didn’t have the best arm, and he wasn’t fleet of foot. But he was a winner with nerves of steel, and he was at his best under the intense pressure of game-winning drives.

After losing their first game of the season to a sneaky good Texas A&M team, the Tide curb-stomped Auburn and won a hard fought victory against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. That set up the BCS National Championship match-up between Bama and Notre Dame, and true to form, McCarron showed well on the biggest stage. He and the Alabama offense ripped the Notre Dame defense for 264 yards passing and four touchdowns (one to Eddie Lacy, one to Michael Williams and two to Amari Cooper) to seize the 15th national championship for the Crimson Tide.

The win over Notre Dame vaulted McCarron into the record books on several counts, as he became the only starting quarterback to win two BCS Championships. He put himself in the rare company of only seven quarterbacks to win multiple national championships awarded by any body, and his 30 touchdown passes as a junior set a school record at Alabama. He finished the season 211-for-314 (67.2% passer) for 2,933 yards with a 30-to-3 TD to INT ratio. He averaged 209.5 yards per game passing.

With a legitimate opportunity to lead the Tide to a third consecutive national championship, McCarron elected to return for his senior season at the Capstone. He was named a pre-season second team All-SEC selection, and surrounded by talent offensively, many thought the Tide would be the odds on favorite to win another national championship.

McCarron once again lived up to the hype, improving on some of his stats while nearly matching his most impressive previous numbers. He became the all-time passing leader at Alabama, amassing 9,019 yards through the air in his Crimson Tide career. Also impressive were his 77 career touchdown passes and mere 15 career interceptions. Though the Tide fell short of their quest for third straight championship after the unfortunate events that ended the otherwise stellar 2013 season, McCarron was 226-for-336 (67.6%) for 3,063 yards, with 28 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 248.5 yards per game passing. His 3,063 yards in 2013 broke Greg McElroy’s single-season passing record.

After Alabama

With all the accolades a quarterback could want coming out of Alabama, McCarron’s draft prospects were something of a mystery. He held numerous Tide passing records, he was part of multiple championship teams, and he was the engineer of the Tide’s offensive train for three years in a pro-style offense.

McCarron himself said he had been told he was a second or third round pick in the coming 2014 NFL Draft. However, scouts were not nearly as high on the former Tide quarterback as he was on himself. Several NFL teams said after interviewing McCarron that he came off as cocky and over-confident, and McCarron’s snubbing of his hometown senior showcase, the Senior Bowl, couldn’t have gone over much worse.

On draft day, McCarron’s stock plummeted. Expected to be one of the early quarterbacks selected in the draft, he instead was the ninth quarterback (of 14 overall) taken. Instead of the second, or even third, round, the Tide legend was taken by Cincinnati in the fifth round. He signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Bengals in 2014.

McCarron didn’t see any action in his rookie season, landing on the injured reserve. After healing up, however, he worked his way into a back-up role behind Bengals starter Andy Dalton in 2015, and he played in his first pre-season game against the Buccaneers (he went 11-of-15 for 94 yards). Against the Colts in the pre-season, he showed some of the flash he displayed at Alabama, going 15-of-28 for 219 yards.

With Dalton somewhat injury-prone, it was only a matter of time before McCarron would get a shot under the bright lights as the main signal caller for the Bengals in the regular season. After Dalton suffered a thumb injury to his throwing hand against Pittsburg, McCarron stepped into the fray and excelled, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns (with two interceptions) in a losing effort. McCarron also broke a disturbing trend among former Alabama QBs, as he became the first Alabama quarterback to win an NFL game since Jeff Rutledge won for the Giants in 1987.

With Dalton still entrenched as the starter in Cincy, McCarron will continue to spell the former TCU quarterback through the end of his four year contract. McCarron has proven himself capable as a legitimate NFL quarterback, with steady if not spectacular performances in his early career.

Regardless of whether his pro career pans out, McCarron will always be remembered by Tide fans as one the founding members of an Alabama dynasty that continues to this day. He was the perfect Saban quarterback in his years at Alabama, playing mistake-free ball, stepping up to make big plays when everything was on the line, and proving a steady, ferocious competitor on the game’s biggest stages.