After AJ, a dynasty at stake

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It wasn't pretty, but AJ McCarron wasn't worried. The fifth-year senior had been through his fair share of spring scrimmages, and a lackluster A-Day wasn't going to put him in knots. Not even six total interceptions, two of which he was responsible for, struck a nerve in the confident starting quarterback of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

What level of concern did he have? "None," he said flatly, leaving the reporter's question hanging in the air without a second thought.

McCarron has good reason to be confident. He led the country in passing efficiency on his way to earning a third national championship last season. He passed for nearly 3,000 yards and threw a career-high 30 touchdowns. He thought about forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft but decided better of it. There was a legacy to be won at Alabama, one absent any footnote of a meaningless spring game.

"When you've played this game so long, and you win every year, you start to lose a little fire," he said days earlier. "Michael Jordan said it best: It's not the first one that's the hardest to win; it's every one after that. So what's your purpose, really? Why are you coming out every day?

"Everybody has a time and an era in college football. USC went through it, Florida went through it. Miami went through it for all those years. Our biggest thing to me is, 'Why does your time and era have to end?' "

It might not have to, at least not this season. McCarron, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 223 yards on Saturday, has all the weapons on offense to lead Alabama back to the promised land this coming season. But what happens when he leaves a year from now? Will the dynasty continue when No. 10 isn't under center any longer?

It's something coach Nick Saban has considered. As early as signing day, he said he was looking for his next starting quarterback. If he could find McCarron's successor now, he could avoid a quarterback controversy later.

"It's critical that some player that we have either in the organization or that we just recruited can develop into a potential starter for when AJ graduates," he said on Feb. 6, acknowledging the three freshman quarterbacks he'd welcomed to campus less than a month earlier. "AJ has done a great job here for us. He provides good leadership and I'm sure he'll help with the development of these guys by the way he prepares, how he practices."

Saban went on to describe the battle as an open competition absent any notion of seniority.

"You probably look at it like, 'Well, this guy's been here the longest so he gets the most chance,' " he said. "If he's been here the longest, he's already had the most chances. If he hasn't taken advantage of those opportunities, then somebody else has a turn at getting those chances."

Fast-forward through spring practice and the picture at quarterback isn't any clearer. The depth chart is anyone's guess. McCarron didn't even bother to keep track of his backups.

"From the little bit I saw, I felt like they did well," he said. "I wasn't really paying attention; when I get on the sidelines I zone out, so I can't really see too much."

Saban, who watched on as Blake Sims, Phillip Ely, Alec Morris and his three freshmen quarterbacks combined for no touchdowns and four interceptions on 52.5-percent passing, wasn't pleased with the effort.

"I would say they all need to improve," he said of the quarterbacks not named McCarron.

Morris, who started off hot with a well-placed pass to DeAndrew White that gained 30-plus yards, didn't finish strong. He threw an interception, coughed up a fumble and was generally out of whack on a few series. Saban could be heard chastising his redshirt freshman for having the offense out of formation on two plays in a row.

Nonetheless, Morris was the most impressive in terms of talent and production. He completed the most passes among backup quarterbacks and appeared to be the most ready to take the reins from McCarron.

Said safety Nick Perry: "[Morris] has one of the strongest arms I've ever seen. He has a rocket."

"Alec probably played as well as any of them," Saban said. "I thought some of the young guys were a little bit antsy and had trouble managing the game, getting in the right formation, getting the call, which can be expected. But we certainly need those guys to develop as well."

It didn't help that Sims, last year's backup along with Ely, wasn't sharp during the scrimmage, completing just 5 of 10 passes for 52 yards and no touchdowns. Being in a black no-contact jersey kept him from running, but there was no accounting for two poorly placed interceptions, one that was nothing more than a desperate heave to the sidelines that fell into the waiting arms of a defensive back.

"Blake, who's had a really good spring and has made really good progress if you look at the spring as a whole, sort of went a little bit rat-trap out there today," Saban said. "[He] aborted his reads early, started scrambling, didn't do things like he really improved in scrimmages as well as through the spring."

The three early enrollees -- Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio -- combined for 50 yards and an interception on seven pass attempts. In the confines of the A-Day format in which quarterbacks rotate in and out haphazardly, none got a legitimate look.

McCarron, calm and collected as ever, said there was no reason to be worried.

"This is like playing in an all-star game," McCarron said. "You don't get in a rhythm. It's not a real game. But it's fun and it's fun to go out there and try to make plays happen, and get to do some trick plays and stuff. I felt like everybody had a good day, though."

His teammates agreed, saying that all the quarterbacks had done well during the spring and that A-Day was nothing more than a small bump in the road.

"It's obviously going to be a learning curve," said center Ryan Kelly, who worked with Sims, Ely and Morris as a backup last season. "The summer is going to be huge for all those guys. I think they're making a lot of progress."

Alabama can be confident for the time being, but sooner or later a leader to replace McCarron must emerge. It's not McCarron's problem, but if he wants an answer to how long the Crimson Tide's dynasty will last, he need only look to those behind him.