TUSCALOOSA — If Barrett Jones had any questions about the player he protects, they vanished Saturday night in Gainesville.
Alabama’s starting left tackle proudly watched quarterback AJ McCarron “briefly follow” Florida’s 282-pound defensive lineman Dominique Easley in disgust. He wasn’t taking the late hit lightly and all 90,000 in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium watched the lanky quarterback make his move.
There’s a confidence in McCarron, now five games into his first year as the Crimson Tide’s starter behind center.
“We love to see when our quarterback hops up from a big hit,” Jones said. “He’s not laying on the ground and moaning. He’s hopping up and he’s ready to go back and play. Next play we sneak it in, or maybe two plays later. That was a great series for us.”
Minus a public proclamation of his official status as the No. 1 quarterback, McCarron’s taken every meaningful snap since sharing time with Phillip Sims in the opener. The two are still listed as co-starters on the depth chart released Monday, but the offense is clearly McCarron’s entering Saturday’s visit from Vanderbilt (3-1, 1-1 SEC).
Nearly halfway through his first season in lights, the sophomore from Mobile hasn’t done much to lose the job. He played well two of the more hostile environments — at Penn State and Florida — while limiting the mistakes.
The two interceptions thrown against Kent State were the last he’s thrown this season.
With a running game and defense like Alabama’s, having the 80th-ranked passing offense hasn’t been a big issue thus far. Trent Richardson is the nation’s ninth leading running back averaging 124 yards a game and the defense surrenders the fewest points of any team in the nation.
That’s where the “game manager” tag comes into play for McCarron. And that’s a positive label for Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“Being talented and not managing the game — calling the wrong play, total disarray, lots of penalties, lots of interceptions — how does that rate you? We haven’t had that,” Saban said. “ … “So there is no negative connotation in my mind when I say a guy is doing a good job of managing the game. That’s a very positive thing to me, because I’ve played with some quarterbacks who couldn’t manage the game and that’s very, very frustrating.”
In his five games, McCarron is completing 62.5 percent of his passes (75-for-120) and averaging 183.8 yards per game. His predecessor, Greg McElroy, averaged 225 yards a game through five games as a first-year starter in 2009.
Circumstances and receivers are different, though.
The approach they take to the game isn’t.
Center William Vlachos was around for McElroy’s debut season too. He said both play with the confidence necessary to play at this level.
From watching tape of McCarron, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was impressed with the way McCarron runs the offense.
“Whenever you’re a young quarterback still developing and you can play behind a veteran, physical offensive line and two backs that are difference makers and game changers in this conference and be surrounded by wide receivers, he’s doing his job,” Franklin said. “But I think they’re relying a lot on the running backs and the running game. … They’re blessed to be a position to do that.”
Should McCarron get carless with his passes Saturday, the Commodores have a few defensive backs who can make him pay. Casey Hayward leads the nation with four interceptions and Trey Wilson is right behind him with three — two of which were returned for touchdowns to Hayward’s one.
Saban said Vanderbilt disguises its coverage well, thus making it difficult on opposing quarterbacks. Keeping McCarron’s sometimes fear-free spirit in check will be increasingly vital in that circumstance.
“One of the things that is most important at quarterback is that your ego doesn’t get ahead of your decision making, which means I’m going to take and throw the ball to the right place and know that if every possession that we have ends in a kick we will be very, very successful,” Saban said. “…That’s where your ego gets ahead of your decision making. AJ has done a really good job of managing that.”