Mark Edwards: If Tide needs to rely on AJ's leadership, he's ready
by Mark Edwards
medwards@annistonstar.com
Jul 18, 2013 | 2628 views |  0 comments | 48 48 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is surrounded by media during SEC Media Days Thursday at the Hyatt Regency in Birmingham. (Photo by Trent Penny)
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is surrounded by media during SEC Media Days Thursday at the Hyatt Regency in Birmingham. (Photo by Trent Penny)
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HOOVER -- When AJ McCarron was a first-year Alabama quarterback in 2009, he found himself in a scrimmage, managing a bunch of reserves against a first-team Tide defense that included guys like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and Mark Barron.

He got hit every play and didn’t get much accomplished. So, afterward, he marched upstairs to Nick Saban’s office, upset that he had to perform in a no-win situation.

“I told him, ‘How do you expect me to show you what I can do if you put me in something like that?’” McCarron, now a senior, said he told the man he calls his “second dad.”

Saban replied, “Today was a test of your leadership … and you failed.”

That isn’t exactly what McCarron expected to hear, but maybe it was exactly what he needed Saban to tell him. Maybe it served as the turning point of McCarron’s career, when he went from a hot-shot prospect to someone who realized winning the Alabama quarterback job would hinge on more than how far he could throw downfield.

In that one moment, after quarterbacking the third-team offense against a daunting, veteran Alabama defense, McCarron got a lesson that has carried him through his college football career, including his session Thursday at SEC Media Days.

Unlike his counterpart and friend from Texas A&M, Johnny Manziel, McCarron didn’t spend any time apologizing this week in Hoover. Maybe that’s because McCarron apparently has little to apologize for.

The most eye-popping, interesting thing McCarron has done publicly off the field is begin a relationship through social media with Katherine Webb, a former Miss Alabama. When McCarron gets dinged online, it’s usually about how he sometimes butchers the English language in his posts on Twitter. He even jokes about that, saying there are a lot of “grammar teachers” out there.

“My job is to play football, not be a celebrity and stuff,” he said.

He is a celebrity, however, and sometimes uses it in ways he hopes can help someone. On Thursday, he wore a blue and pink bow tie, which he said was to honor a cousin, who discovered recently she has breast cancer.

“Maybe it can bring some awareness,” he said.

McCarron said he wasn’t always like this, and he smiled when he thought about his reputation when he came to Alabama – took too many chances on the field, played with too much cockiness, was too self-assured.

Now, he is the ultimate Saban quarterback. McCarron doesn’t play in an offense that allows him to pile up big statistics, but he doesn’t make mistakes. As a sign of how much McCarron has grown as a leader, his All-America offensive guard, Anthony Steen, said Thursday he plays a little harder because he doesn’t want to disappoint his quarterback.

In spring practice, the offense appeared to develop miles ahead of the defense, and Saban said that likely was because of McCarron.

Because of all the talk about his head instead of his right arm, McCarron realizes he sometimes gets lauded for everything but his athletic ability.

“I hear ‘game manager’ so much sometimes I think it’s my middle name,” he said, smiling.

However, he was careful to add that he was the one who led the nation in passing efficiency last year. Not bad for a “game manager.”

He is getting mention as a Heisman candidate, but might be a longshot. He hasn’t gained 3,000 yards in total offense in a season at Alabama and if he does this year, it won’t be by much. The last Heisman-winning quarterback to didn’t have at least 3,000 yards in offense was Nebraska’s Eric Crouch in 2001, but he ran an old-fashioned option attack.

McCarron said he won’t lie and say the Heisman wouldn’t mean anything to him. Besides, if he did, his mother has proof otherwise.

“For Halloween when I was about 4, I dressed up in an Alabama football player costume,” he said. “My mother took a picture of me doing a Heisman pose.”

But he added, “I never put my personal goals ahead of team goals.”

So, can Alabama manage a third straight national championship? Saban might say it will be a test of the most important factor on this team -- McCarron and his leadership.

Contact Anniston Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards at medwards@annistonstar.com. Follow on Twitter @MarkSportsStar.
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