Senior College Football Columnist

Win over Penn State means AJ stands for 'starting quarterback'


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's AJ. Not A.J., or short for something lovingly Southern like Andrew Jackson or Alabama's Jewel.

It's AJ, really the only name of the Crimson Tide's new starting quarterback has known. Period. Never mind that there are officially no periods in AJ McCarron's name. On Saturday, AJ stood for something like closure after Alabama's 27-11 win over Penn State.

Wait, new starting quarterback? You might not know that yet. Nick Saban certainly wouldn't say that the redshirt sophomore is his No. 1 after the second week of the season. Why would he? There are (at least) 10 games to play and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, who shared time last week, is a talented backup.

It wasn't one of those rocket-armed, secondary-splitting spectaculars because Saban will seldom get that from his quarterbacks. But he loves game managers more than a practice closed to the media. They're solid and reliable. McCarron is getting there.

And with Alabama's defense rising to 2009 -- meaning, championship -- levels, there really is no huge urgency for a developing quarterback.

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"I had to face that '09 defense [in practice]," McCarron said. "The '09 defense was really good. This one is going to be special."

Ask Joe Paterno -- again. Alabama outscored Penn State in the two-year, home-and-home series 51-14. The baby steps McCarron took were a lot more encouraging than the mess on the opposite sideline. In his 46th season, it's possible Paterno doesn't have a reliable quarterback between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin, whom he yo-yoed in and out of the game.

That's why you take precious commodities where you get them. Saban never gushes with praise about, well, anything. So he was offered a choice: Would he give McCarron a pat on the back or offer a qualifier, "Nice job, but ..."

"I'd say good job but there was no 'but,' " Saban said of McCarron. "He did a good job. This is a work in progress. He's going to develop. He's got talent. But Sims does too.

"AJ's got a good arm and he's accurate. When he sets his feet right he's really good. Sometimes he gets a little out of sorts and sails a few. But I think he played a lot better today."

It's what McCarron didn't do.

He didn't throw an interception after throwing two last week against Kent State.

He didn't fumble.

He didn't allow 108,000 in Beaver Stadium to wake up, much.

"I didn't think it got this loud up here," Tide cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said.

So does that mean Raymond Anthony McCarron Jr. has a rather tentative title as Alabama's starting quarterback?

"You could say that," Kirkpatrick added.

As for AJ himself, he had the deflector shields up.

Nick Saban on AJ McCarron: 'He did a good job. This is a work in progress. He's going to develop.' (Getty Images)  
Nick Saban on AJ McCarron: 'He did a good job. This is a work in progress. He's going to develop.' (Getty Images)  
"I've been playing football since I was four," he said. "It was just another day."

Hardly. If McCarron continues to do what he did Saturday, Alabama can win a championship. Completing 19 of 31 for 163 yards doesn't wow you, but when you combine that with Trent Richardson's 111 rushing and two touchdowns it might.

On Alabama's second possession McCarron completed four of five for 59 yards. On a five-yard scoring pass to Michael Williams at the end of that drive, he snuck it in between Penn State defenders. A tentative guy doesn't even attempt that throw.

Alabama scored on five of the 11 possessions he was in the game. Four of the five possessions lasted at least 10 plays.

"If you come into the game and you're not confident it's going to show," McCarron said "The game hasn't changed. I feel like with coach having confidence in me, it's growing. Anytime he gives me the nod, I feel good. I've been playing this game so long, nothing changes."

Just don't ever put those periods behind the "A" and the "J". That is a personal affront to McCarron's mother. Raymond Anthony was shortened to Anthony Jr., which became AJ.

"My mom doesn't like to have dots in my name, at all," he said. Call McCarron, from Mobile, the leader in the clubhouse, the clubhouse being one of the coveted jobs in one of the most revered programs. Sims will play. He's too good of an athlete, with better mobility than McCarron. But when it comes to winning championships Saban likes the guy who is stable, almost boring.

The idea for someone this season was to replace Greg McElroy. He had a national championship on his resume in 2009. He was Saban's kind of quarterback -- self-effacing, able to take a tongue-lashing and still retain confidence.

"Leadership, confidence, getting us in the right plays, making the right choices and decisions, and distributing the ball," Saban said when asked about his ideal guy behind center. "A quarterback has the ball every play. The choices and decisions he makes as to who he gives it to and who he throws it to are critical in terms of execution."

McCarron doesn't have to be McElroy, or even great. He redshirted that championship year, then threw 48 passes as a backup last season. What is it about Alabama quarterbacks anyway? Joe Namath and Ken Stabler were much more effective in the pros. 'Bama won a championship with Jay Barker.

At halftime, Alabama had scored on three of its last four possessions and led 17-3. The offense could have taken the rest of the day off right then. 'Bama's defense held Penn State to 251 yards. In one stretch early in the second half it got a hand on every pass, coming close to an interception on four consecutive plays.

This unit, with eight possible NFL draft picks, is still beating itself up for losing all of three games last season.

"We were young, man," Kirkpatrick said. "A lot of people, when the game got rowdy, their focus went the other way. This year I feel like when someone makes a bad play, it's water under the bridge."

There weren't many bad plays on Saturday. That includes AJ. Period.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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