NEW ORLEANS (AP) - AJ McCarron tried it Nick Saban’s way. He really did.
The quarterback for No. 2 Alabama curbed his emotions for the Crimson Tide’s first game with No. 1 LSU this season, did his best to be the calm, steady leader his coach wanted. McCarron didn’t make a lot of noise, didn’t go after any opposing defensive linemen.
He didn’t produce any touchdowns, either, and the Tide lost 9-6 in overtime. So much for cool and collected.
“I’ve got to play with emotion,” McCarron said Thursday in a rare visit with reporters ahead of Monday’s BCS title game with the Tigers. “Last game, I just tried to stay calm the whole game. I think, in the end, I wasn’t playing my game. After the Florida game, we had a talk and (Saban) was like, `Just slow your emotions down.’
“After the LSU game, we had another talk and he said, `All right, I want you to play with your emotions again.’ He knows how I play the game.”
The McCarron-and-Saban dynamic has been anything but calm during the redshirt sophomore’s first three seasons.
There’s been a sideline spank, and tirades captured on TV. But there also have been good moments, like when Saban said before the 2009 championship game that if starter Greg McElroy was hurt, forget the redshirt. McCarron would be his guy.
The on-field relationship, and McCarron’s play and leadership, have certainly evolved. There’s no doubt he is Saban’s starter now.
“I think our team is very confident in AJ,” Saban said. “He does have leadership qualities and he does affect other people with his positive energy and attitude.”
His play hasn’t been bad, either.
McCarron, whose fight for the starting spot with Phillip Sims carried over into the season, has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 2,216 yards with 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. Only LSU’s ex-starter Jarrett Lee has a higher efficiency rating among Southeastern Conference quarterbacks.
“He’s become a whole lot better since that (first) game,” LSU safety Brandon Taylor said. “He led his team to the national championship so he’s doing the right thing.”
McCarron has only spoken to the media three times this season, all after games. He said that was by mutual agreement with Saban so he could “focus on my game and let the guys know that I’m here to play and here to win.”
He seemed confident and comfortable before the cameras, tape recorders and microphones of the national media Thursday. Off the field, calm works for him. On the field, it’s just not AJ.
“If you ever see him in a game, he’s probably jumping up,” tailback Trent Richardson said. “If somebody scores a touchdown, he’s probably running down to the end zone to meet us and bumping heads with us and chest-bumping. He’s got a lot of emotion into the game.”
Like predecessor McElroy, McCarron has been overshadowed by a star tailback (first, Mark Ingram, now Richardson) and a defense stocked with stars and NFL prospects. The quarterback’s role at Alabama has often been as a game manager first, then a playmaker.
But make no mistake. McCarron is proud of the Tide’s offense.
“That’s all we ever hear about is our defense, but we know we’ve got one of the best offenses in the country,” he said. “We led the SEC in a bunch of categories the whole year. When you’ve got a great defense like we’ve got, your offense gets overlooked. That’s what we like. We kind of fly under the radar and we’re able to do some things that surprise people. It doesn’t surprise us because we do it all the time.”
McCarron wasn’t horrible in the first game with LSU. He posted a solid 16-of-28, 199-yard performance but also was intercepted by All-America cornerback Morris Claiborne.
“(Clairborne’s) one of the best cornerbacks in the country. He’ll be one of the top picks coming out in the draft,” McCarron said. “The guy just made a good play. I could have done some things to prevent it, probably, but whenever I make a mistake, I let it go right then. But when I sit down at dinner (with family) and talk about it, it eats at me. I feel like throughout my whole career of football, I’ve done a pretty good job of taking care of the ball.”
His Alabama career has been an adventure already.
Last season, he threw deep into coverage in mop-up duty against Mississippi State, prompting Saban to walk on the field after the series for a heated scolding. Then he swatted his backside. The scene has drawn nearly 90,000 views on YouTube.
McCarron showed his own feisty side against Florida this year when he chased after 282-pound Gators defensive end Dominique Easley following a late hit.
“I was like, `OK, pal. He’s a lot bigger than you,’” Tide left tackle Barrett Jones said. Then there’s his celebration, which Jones says consists of waving “his arms around wildly. There’s no pattern.”
At the same time, teammates say they like McCarron’s intensity.
“AJ’s a passionate guy,” Jones said. “That’s what we love about him. He’s fearless. He doesn’t back down from big situations. For a young, first-year quarterback, I’m really impressed by him. You can see it in his eyes. He’s a natural leader.”
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