The Legend of AJ McCarron
By BJ Bennett
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After simply learning to blend in with the talent around him upon his arrival to Tuscaloosa, A.J. McCarron's comparative circle is now of a much more historical ilk.
Early in his career, A.J. McCarron's role was simple and straight-forward: just don't screw things up. The lone quarterback signed in Alabama's 2009 recruiting class, he entered the 2011 season with 389 career passing yards, teammates as talented as any in college football and legitimate questions as to what the future for he and the Crimson Tide might hold.
As the heir-apparent to NFL signal caller Greg McElroy, who led Alabama to the national championship two years prior, McCarron's initial responsibility was to hold serve under center and do his best to maintain the championship-level status quo. It's not that McCarron wasn't talented. A four-star recruit from Mobile's St. Pius, he finished his career as a respected Elite 11 passer and chose Alabama over offers from the likes of Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma -- schools with multiple Heisman Trophy winners at his position. Most were simply weary of his inexperience in relation to the other proven commodities on the roster. Some had irrational perspectives rooted in the then-freshman's four incompletions in replacement of an injured McElroy at the end of the 2010 Auburn game, a 28-27 Tiger victory.
"I'm responsible for the fact that we didn't finish they way we needed to. We didn't make the plays that we needed to at the end of the game," UA head football coach Nick Saban explained after the loss. "This team will learn and grow from this. Hopefully when we get another opportunity, we will be able to be a better team because of the lessons we learned today."
Since that loss, Alabama has won 27-of-29 games. McCarron has led the Crimson Tide in 28 of them. While his first career start, two interceptions against Kent State, offered a handful of teaching points, the savvy-beyond-his-years McCarron learned quick. From the initial game of his sophomore year, the junior has thrown a staggering 45 touchdown passes compared to just six interceptions. Included in that 16-month span are two BCS National Championships, five victories against top five teams, 91 total points scored in a pair of Iron Bowl romps and more hardware than a Best Buy-Home Depot duplex.
"If Alabama wins the national title tonight, I don't think you can say there is anybody more legendary at the end of the day in Alabama lore than A.J. McCarron," former national championship-winning Tide tight end Colin Peek suggested in an interview on the Southern Pigskin Sports Radio Network Monday afternoon.
Considering the program, with quarterbacks named Barker, Namath, Stabler and Sloan, it seems unfathomable for a quarterback who has yet to even reach the prime of his collegiate career to be in such a divine discussion. After his second national title, it's a conversation many are having.
"The one thing that I can say about A.J. is I think he is going to leave as the most highly-acclaimed quarterback of all time at Alabama. He may go down as bigger than someone like Joe Namath based upon the fact that he has the opportunity here to win three national championship rings. If he were to win another one...I don't believe any quarterback would ever be able to win four national championships, especially leading at the helm for three of them," Peek continued, referencing the title won McCarron's redshirt year and the possibility of winning another next season.
From potential liability to legend, McCarron is officially rewriting one of the game's most hallowed history books. Before the start of his senior year, he's already considered one of the best big game quarterbacks in history. He has the title game numbers - 69% passing, 498 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and two wins - to prove it. In his first BCS Championship Game, he navigated through the nation's second-ranked scoring defense in LSU. As if that wasn't enough, he breezed right past Notre Dame's top-ranked unit in Miami for an encore.
"He's an incredibly bright kid, a very savvy kid and he's a player. He's a gunslinger, he is a very cerebral quarterback and he is a great leader of men as you can tell by what he is able to accomplish and what Coach Saban is saying about him. That's all about the maturity. He embraces the moment and is never afraid of the moment. That's what makes a great quarterback legendary."
For McCarron, the challenge is a completely different one from when he started. The pressure now is that of perfection. After simply learning to blend in with the talent around him upon his arrival to Tuscaloosa, McCarron's comparative circle is now of a much more historical ilk.