IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL, NFL-WORTHY THROW—A TIGHT, TEXTBOOK SPIRAL THAT SAILED HIGH through the Alabama sunshine. Late in the third quarter of the Crimson Tide's A-Day game on April 14, AJ McCarron, on a flea-flicker, unleashed a rainbow to wide receiver Kenny Bell for a 47-yard touchdown. This moment—and this display of accuracy and arm strength—underscored how McCarron's growth at quarterback has been the biggest story of the off-season in Tuscaloosa.
"I'm just more comfortable with the whole offense," says McCarron, a 6' 4", 210-pound junior from Mobile. "Everything feels much slower than last season. I'm picking up blitzes faster, and I feel like I'm reading the defense quicker. I remember feeling a little lost last spring. This spring I feel like I really know what I'm doing."
Named the offensive MVP of Alabama's 21--0 win over LSU in the BCS national title game last January (he completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards), McCarron has since added plenty of zip on his tosses—which was clear this spring, especially on intermediate and long-range throws. That new zing came after he underwent surgery in January to repair a dislocated labrum in his right shoulder.
"We didn't tell anyone, but I hurt it against Arkansas [on Sept. 24] on the seventh play of the game, and I lost some velocity on my throws," says McCarron. "Now my arm feels as strong as it's ever been. I'm more comfortable throwing the deep outs and deep crosses."
McCarron passed for 202.6 yards a game in 2011, and this year Alabama will rely even more heavily upon him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier plans to feature more three-- and four--wide receiver sets than Alabama used last season, when the Tide's offense revolved around running back Trent Richardson, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Browns. McCarron has the pedigree of a leader—as a high school junior he took St. Paul's Episcopal to a state championship—and the spring game may have been just a hint of the strides he is taking at this high level. Though limited by vanilla play-calling—"On one drive we ran the same play nine times," McCarron said—he threw for 304 yards in the A-Day game.
"We've got a lot of confidence in AJ's making the right decisions on the field," says coach Nick Saban. "He's got all the talent in the world, but like any good quarterback, he's got to take what the defense gives him and not force balls. He really had a nice spring."
"AJ has taken control of this offense," says center Barrett Jones. "After what he's done this spring, everyone here expects a big year from him. Now that he's a year older and has that experience, he's become much more vocal. If we're having a bad day at practice, he's the one that picks us up. ... AJ is definitely going to shoulder a bigger load, and he's acting like he's up for it."
McCarron's favorite target will surely be Bell, as Nussmeier wants to stretch the field with more deep throws and Bell is 'Bama's top playmaking receiver. "I'm going to lean on Kenny," McCarron says. "We know he's capable of being a very, very good receiver, and it's my job to let him show that. I'm doing everything I can to get the best out of everybody on the offense. I've been playing this position since I was three years old, and I've always wanted more responsibility put on me."
In 2012, McCarron will get it.