TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron arrived at Alabama with a bit of a gunslinger reputation.
Big arm. Big numbers. Big expectations.
He could throw a ball a mile and didn’t mind trying to squeeze one into the tightest of windows.
It’s like his top receiver, Marquis Maze, said earlier this season.
“There aren’t many plays out there that AJ thinks he can’t make,” Maze said.
That’s not always the best way to think if you’re going to play quarterback for Nick Saban, at least if you want to play very long.
From the day McCarron went through his first practice at Alabama, Saban knew he had a special talent.
Saban also knew what kind of seasoning would be required to get McCarron to where he is today: A quarterback who can make all the throws, but also a quarterback who knows when to make those throws, and even more importantly, a quarterback who manages the offense with a steady precision.
“AJ’s played well for us,” Saban said. “I think he’s improved in every game.”
Granted, that’s not gushing praise, but Saban has been careful about the way he’s brought McCarron along. Go back to the preseason, even the first game of this season.
McCarron shared snaps with redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and really didn’t solidify himself as the Crimson Tide’s quarterback until Week 2 in a 27-11 win at Penn State.
It was major breakthrough for McCarron, to go on the road and lead Alabama to a win at a tough place to play, especially after throwing two interceptions in the opener against Kent State.
He’s thrown only one interception since and ranks second in the SEC in passing efficiency. He’s completing 67 percent of his passes, which leads all SEC starters.
And the thing that impresses his teammates the most is that he’s become a leader.
“I think the biggest change from Week 1 until now has been his leadership,” Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones said. “To have a successful offense, you have to have a leader at the quarterback position. He’s done a really good job of stepping up and being that leader.
“The other thing is that he’s done a really good job of keeping his poise and executing. I’ve been really impressed with him in these last few games when guys would try and load the box, and he’s been able to make plays for us in the passing game.”
McCarron, who’s thrown for 1,664 yards and 10 touchdowns, has been masterful at spreading the ball around. The Crimson Tide have nine players who’ve caught at least eight passes. Moreover, eight players have caught touchdown passes.
“He’s always been focused. That’s the one thing I can say about AJ,” said Alabama running back Trent Richardson, whose ability to rip off large chunks of yards in the running game has taken a lot of the pressure off McCarron.
“He’s done a tremendous job on the field and off the field with anything that has come toward him. He’s staying focused. He’s a reliable person. If you need him, he’s there. In the games, he’s a playmaker. So he’s a role model on this team as well.”
McCarron has talked only a couple of times this season to the media. Saban’s explanation is that he wants McCarron focused on doing all of the things he needs to do as a quarterback and that there will be plenty of time for him to speak publicly later.
Of course, the big question this week against No. 1 LSU will be: Is he ready for this kind of stage and ready for this kind of defense?
LSU’s secondary rivals Alabama’s as perhaps the best in college football, and the Tigers have made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks this season with their relentless pass rush.
But, then, this is McCarron’s chance to prove that he’s not just another quarterback.
“He’s going to use the playmakers around him,” Richardson said. “We know he’s going to get us the ball, and we know he’s going to keep getting back up when he does get hit.
“We’ve got his back and know he has ours.”