TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) AJ McCarron started out as a feisty freshman seething over his lowly spot on the depth chart for his first scrimmage. Third team? Seriously?
Now, the Alabama quarterback is an impeccably efficient passer who has as many titles (two) as defeats since becoming the Crimson Tide's starter. He's even got a celebrity girlfriend who unwittingly stole some of his thunder during the national championship game.
Much has changed, but McCarron still doesn't back down.
Not on Twitter, where he told his 169,000 followers he was happy to be home "working to get another" title and not attending the ESPYs. Not on the game manager label, or on pal Johnny Manziel.
Or nearing the end of a blowout win over Notre Dame, when his eruption over a delay of game penalty that merely delayed the celebration drew a shove from normally peaceful center Barrett Jones.
Those are just subplots in the story of a quarterback who's been delivering to 'Bama fans what they covet most: Championship rings.
With a 25-2 record, McCarron's pecking order is now pretty well established for coach Nick Saban's top-ranked Crimson Tide. Many think he'll lead the Tide to a third consecutive national title, something no team has managed going back to the first Associated Press poll in 1936.
"He went from a guy that was kind of bucking the system early on and Saban had to kind of get him in line and he realized, 'If I just play within the system, we can win a lot of games and win championships,'" said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led the Tide to the 1992 national title. "And he's definitely done that."
Saban recalls that first scrimmage, which he turned into a memorable lesson on leadership. He said McCarron thought he should have led the second team, not the third, and didn't handle it well.
"He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn't play with the second team," Saban said. "And he didn't do a very good job of leading the players that he did play with, which was the third team. And he was kind of fussing and cussing and frustrated.
"He said, 'Why didn't I play with the second team?' And I said, 'Well, we were only evaluating on one thing today and that was leadership. And you failed dramatically.'"
McCarron hasn't failed many such lessons since then. He has become the face of the program if that title doesn't belong to either Saban or perhaps the QB's girlfriend, Katherine Webb, who drew the cameras and TV announcer Brent Musberger's attention repeatedly as the championship game in Miami itself provided little beauty for non-Bama fans. Webb has since landed a role on a reality show and a spot in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue
McCarron has done OK, too. He has been nearly flawless in two national championship games, and was the MVP against LSU two seasons ago. He was the nation's most efficient passer last season, with a school-record 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His 291 pass attempts between interceptions made for the second-longest streak in SEC history.
A program that has produced the likes of Bart Starr, Kenny Stabler and Joe Namath is still not known for quarterbacks.
McCarron has a shot to become the first Tide quarterback picked in the opening round of the NFL draft since the New York Jets took Richard Todd in 1976.
His poise, collection of titles and ability to make a variety of throws remind Barker of New England Patriots star Tom Brady.
"I know that's a lot of expectations to put on a kid like him, as far as a guy who's won so many championships and been a Pro Bowler and one of the best quarterbacks of all-time," Barker said. "If you look at the stature, the way that they're built, the way they throw, their mind for the game. I think AJ's even a better athlete because he can move around and make plays with his feet that Brady can't do.
"His ability to sit in the pocket and throw between the tackles is as good as anybody in the country, and I hope this year he's going to be recognized for that even more."
Barker was fifth in the 1994 Heisman Trophy balloting. McCarron is regarded as a legitimate candidate to win the award, if far from the favorite unless Alabama suddenly becomes a pass-heavy team.
McCarron mostly brushes off Heisman talk to focus on team goals, but his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, does have a picture of him adopting the Heisman pose in a 'Bama football costume as a youngster.
Game managers don't win Heismans. Guys who make plays and few mistakes certainly have a shot.
This is the quarterback who first came to national attention as a redshirt freshman backup when Saban gave him a hard slap to the backside after an ill-advised downfield throw.
"I went from coming in being called a risk-taker, and 'He's crazy with the ball. He just throws it, blah, blah,'" McCarron said. "Getting smacked on the butt in 2010 from Coach. And then, 'Oh, he doesn't want to be coached,' to now, whenever you mention my first name, it's like 'Game Manager' is my middle name, and then they say my last name. Going two totally different ways.
"It's pretty funny to see what people try to say I am, but I know what I'm capable of doing."
McCarron grew up idolizing Packers quarterback Brett Favre, less for his stats than because he got so much from his teammates and "you never saw Brett Favre not smiling."
The son of a Mobile, Ala., firefighter who lived on Dauphin Island Parkway or D.I.P. does find motivation from more even than titles.
"I want to see my family have things they've never had," McCarron said. "I grew up a poor kid from Mobile on D.I.P. So I came from nothing. I want to be able to watch my family enjoy things that they've never had. That's my biggest thing that pushes me."
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