Alabama head coach Nick Saban claims the word “repeat” hasn’t been used in his locker room since the Crimson Tide claimed the 2011 national championship, beating LSU, 360 days ago.
Changes — too many of them — and the narrow-focus approach Saban prefers made title talk treacherous in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide lost top offensive playmaker Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and four All-American defensive players — safety Mark Barron (seventh overall), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (17th), linebacker Dont’a Hightower (25th) and pass rusher Courtney Upshaw (35th).
Here’s what Alabama didn’t subtract since last parading the crystal trophy across the field — Saban, quarterback AJ McCarron and an offensive line with at least three players ranked among the top 51 overall prospects by NFLDraftScout.com.
McCarron, a junior who has already stated he’s staying at Alabama for his senior season, has a chance to leave an unmatched legacy. The nation’s most efficient passer — with a 173.08 rating that puts him in front of media darling Aaron Murray (172.36) from rival Georgia — played with poise and confidence in his last championship game appearance. Another such showing, and his name is golden in Alabama lore, his value skyrockets with NFL personnel and the rest of college football braces for round three in 2013.
While McCarron is finally cleared to whisper the word “repeat,” the legacy talk can wait.
“Legacy, I never really — I’m not the type of guy to really think into it,” McCarron said. “As long as my teammates know that I’m a good leader, my coaching staff knows that I’m going to go out to win every game, I take everything serious. So I mean, that part of the question I haven’t really given it too much thought. But hopefully at the end of the day they can at least say I was a winner, that the team I was part of was a winner.”
Even if they say he’s a game manager, it’s a label shoved upon championship winners without prototype NFL quarterback skills and body types — players such as Steve Walsh, Ken Dorsey and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy.
“You know, that whole — that saying right there is kind of funny to me. I think game manager can be — I’ve said it a million times. I think you can throw the ball 50 times a game and lead your team to victory by throwing it, or you can hand it off 30 times and only throw it 20,” McCarron said. “I think game manager can be so many different things, and I think people try to label it as a guy that doesn’t really do much for his offense, just kind of takes care of everything, takes care of the ball and tries to get everybody in their right position and get the team in the right position on plays.”
First-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is one of the new faces in town making a major impact. Nussmeier’s first order of business when he was hired — over bigger names such as St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, to replace Jim Elwain, who was hired as Colorado State head coach — was to roll through all the video available on McCarron and find areas of his greatest growth, and areas that needed more attention.
What he found out was McCarron had already done his own self-scout, and was well down the road working to polish his own perceived flaws. When they finally met as coach and pupil, Nussmeier knew his job would be to find new ways to challenge the hardest worker on the roster.
“Then (to) watch how hard he works and how important football is to him and his willingness to spend extra time, the stuff that you don’t see,” said Nussmeier of the initial interaction. “Like I said, you talk about you can be result-oriented or process-oriented, and he’s very process-oriented. He spends a great deal of time when people don’t know what he’s doing, and he’s studying extra. To watch what he did through 15 practices in the spring, and to watch where he started this fall, and just to watch the continual progression, and he deserves all the credit for that because of his hard work and effort. His ability … to bring our offense together.”
It’s worth repeating, considering the plane his career has taken, McCarron has a chance to win a second national title, a legacy that then writes itself. That idea hasn’t been lost on the prideful state product.
“Growing up in the state of Alabama, you definitely hear about all of that, so I probably definitely heard that a little bit more than what I want,” McCarron said. “It’s a great honor to be in that category of quarterbacks that have played here. But I think it’s a tremendous honor to play with my teammates. I think it shows the will that they have to win. I mean, it’s not about me.”
Only on Monday, it very well could be all about AJ.
“He’s the driver. He’s the coach on the field,” said Bob Diaco, Notre Dame defensive coordinator. “You can see he puts them in the right spots. … We actually — as part of our
study, we’ll say, ‘here’s the tangible traits and intangible traits of this player. This would be a guy that would fit perfectly in this (Notre Dame) room.
“The quarterback conducts the game, just like if Nick Saban was taking the snap himself. I mean, he doesn’t put the team in bad spots. He doesn’t make poor decisions
with the ball. He’s working the game and managing the game and putting the offense in the appropriate plays, just like you’d think the inside linebacker or the safety would do for their defense. I mean, it’s really an incredible organization to watch offensively led by the quarterback.”