How impressive was AJ McCarron’s performance against LSU in the BCS title game? He had surgery on his shoulder three days later.
In fact, McCarron’s whole season was pretty remarkable, and not just because he led Alabama to the national championship as a first-year starter. On Sept. 24, on the seventh play against Arkansas, he dislocated the shoulder on his throwing arm and sprained the AC joint and the labrum. He was often in so much pain that he couldn’t practice. Yet, when then-Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain told him that the gameplan for the rematch with the Tigers would involve a heavy dose of passing, McCarron just bit down on a chunk of leather and let it fly.
Okay, so he didn’t exactly hit LSU with a flurry of bombs. It was more like a tactical approach, with plenty of short throws. But McCarron finished 23-of-34 for 234 yards and no interceptions in the Tide’s 21–0 victory. Anybody surprised by his showing would have been positively stunned to know how much pain he had been in throughout the season. Until early January, that is.
“That night, in the championship game, it didn’t hurt a bit,” McCarron says.
When the 2011 season dawned, Alabama’s biggest question mark was under center. Gone were Greg McElroy and his 24–3 record as a starter. Neither McCarron nor Phillip Sims had distinguished himself particularly during spring drills, so McElwain and head coach Nick Saban didn’t designate a starter. But once the summer drills started, McCarron emerged and became a steady hand. As he approaches the start of his junior season, there is no doubt about his primacy, just as there are no questions about his health.
In new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier’s wide-open, spread system, McCarron should be even better. His arm strength has improved, thanks to an aggressive rehab program after surgery — “It feels like a million dollars,” he says — and his approach to defending the Tide’s title is aggressive and unwavering
“Do you want to be basic?” McCarron asks. “Do you want the (freshman) class of ’09 to walk off campus with two national championships, or do you want to be a dynasty and legendary and win three championships in four years?”
Now, some might say that being part of two title squads is anything but basic. (McCarron redshirted during the 2009 season.) But McCarron has a reason to be angry, and it’s not just to push himself to do better things. He grew up under extremely difficult financial circumstances, raised on “grilled cheese and French fries,” as he puts it. If the people in his neighborhood in Mobile hadn’t looked out for him and his brother, Corey, the sandwiches and fries might not have even made it to the table.
“It affected me tremendously, coming up from nothing at all,” McCarron says.
McCarron talks about how well his parents hid the family’s financial struggles from their children. If they hadn’t paid the cable bill, or the phone was turned off, it was simply a matter of workers tending to the lines. “My dad played it off so well,” McCarron says.
Because money was never plentiful, when the quarterback gets some now, he tends to hold onto it. His teammates tease him, because he checks the price before buying something. Anything.
“I’m super cheap,” he admits. “When you come from nothing, when you do have some money, you don’t want to blow it and go back to the way it was.”
The hard times have taught McCarron about what’s important. For instance, during the spring, Corey stayed with him after transferring to Tuscaloosa from South Alabama, where he played tight end. Corey got the bedroom. AJ took the couch. “He rules the place,” AJ says.
On the field, big brother is in charge. While Corey rehabs an injured ankle and prepares to make a bid for playing time at tight end, AJ gets ready to build on a fine debut season, during which he completed 66.8 percent of his throws for 2,634 yards, 16 scores and only five interceptions. Although the Tide relied heavily on running back Trent Richardson, who has moved on to the NFL, McCarron showed his ability by making few mistakes, even after getting hurt.
The shoulder injury came on a third down scramble on Bama’s first possession against the Razorbacks. On fourth down, Saban called for a fake field goal, with the holder (McCarron) supposed to throw the ball to tight end Michael Williams.
“I thought I broke my collarbone, because my bone was poking into my shoulder pads,” McCarron says. “I told (Williams), ‘I have no idea where this throw is going to go.’”
Of course, the ball was a perfect strike to Williams in the flat, and he took it 37 yards for a touchdown. It was just another highlight in a near-perfect season that ended with the big triumph in New Orleans against LSU, which had stumped the Bama offense in their early-November meeting, a 9–6 yawner.
As Alabama prepared for the Tigers, and McElwain informed McCarron of the plan, the quarterback was completely confident he could handle the added responsibility.
“They brought me along gradually last year and taught me how to play the game,” McCarron says. “In the national championship game, we knew they would be keying on Trent, so they gave me a chance to make plays.”
McCarron’s 34 attempts were his highest total all year. He didn’t take too many chances downfield, but he was accurate, kept the ball moving and allowed the Tide to build a lead slowly with five field goals. It wasn’t exactly the Run ‘n’ Shoot, but it was effective and kept LSU’s vaunted defense from controlling the game.
“He’s a very competitive guy,” LSU coach Les Miles says. “He really makes quality decisions and is very heady. He improved significantly during the back end of the season.”
That kind of talk makes McCarron happy, but he views complacency as an enemy and can’t wait to be the focal point of the Tide offense.
During conversation, he seems a bit arrogant. After a while, you just realize that he’s driven to excel and not interested in struggling in anything ever again. He’ll graduate next December (in only three-and-a-half years) with a degree in Health and Environmental Science, and he relishes the chance to lead the way this season.
“I think it’s huge,” he says of the opportunity. “If you are a competitor, you want the football. If you want to be considered the top dog, you’ve got to make big plays in big games.
“That’s where the greats come from.”
Even if they’re hurt.
— by Michael Bradley
This article appeared in Athlon's 2012 SEC Preview Annual.
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