NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones loves to watch quarterback AJ McCarron ride his inner emotional rollercoaster during games for two reasons. Jones also loves to poke fun at McCarron about said emotional rollercoaster ride.
"First of all, when he celebrates he just kind of waves his arms around wildly," Jones said. "No pattern. Second of all, I think it was during the Florida game, he just got so fired up that he tried to take on a D-lineman."
The lineman in question was Dominque Easley, who outweighs McCarron by 92 pounds. After watching his quarterback attempt to get himself maimed, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had a chat with McCarron about keeping his emotions in check during games. McCarron tried his best to do that, especially when the Tide faced LSU for the first time on Nov. 5. McCarron kept telling himself to stay calm, and he did, showing little outward emotion. Unfortunately, that stunted McCarron's performance in Alabama's 9-6 overtime loss, leading to a second discussion with Saban.
"After the Florida game, we had a talk," McCarron said. "He was like, 'Slow your emotions down.' After the LSU game, we had another talk. He said, 'All right, I want you to play with your emotion again.'"
So when Alabama faces LSU in Monday's BCS title game, expect an arm-waving, defensive lineman-challenging McCarron. He tried playing like someone else the first time, but if McCarron has learned anything from long talks with a network of former Alabama quarterbacks that includes Greg McElroy, John Parker Wilson, Brodie Croyle and Tyler Watts, it's that he must be himself on the field to play his best. "Every guy says you've got to play your game," McCarron said. "In the history of Alabama quarterbacks, everybody's been different. You can't try to play anybody else's game or do other things. Just go out and play your game."
So exactly who is AJ McCarron? That mystery has shrouded the redshirt sophomore's first season as Alabama's starter. He has given few interviews, even though he is naturally gregarious. The code of near-silence may sound like a Saban scheme, but McCarron actually requested a shield from the spotlight. "I personally wanted to go under the radar this year," the Mobile native said. "Next year, I can do all that. I wanted to just kind of focus on my game and let the guys know that I'm here to play and here to win. I didn't really want to be in the camera light."
Of course, anonymity is impossible in the most football-mad state in America. "Like my dad always said, when you're the Alabama quarterback, you're probably known more than the governor," McCarron said. "That's just the way it goes around here." In spite of the constant attention, McCarron believes his strategy afforded him a modicum of privacy as he adjusted to the starting role. "When you don't get to talk to the media all year long," McCarron said, "it's not that bad."
Thursday, McCarron offered a few glimpses behind the curtain. For example, he has always been a sports contrarian. The following is a list of the sports allegiances of the majority of McCarron's family alongside the allegiances of a young McCarron.
Family: Atlanta Braves
Family: New Orleans Saints
Really? "I was all about the U when I was little," McCarron said.
As a sophomore in high school, McCarron wrote off Miami as a potential destination. "It was, until they got into the fight and the dude got shot," McCarron said, referring to the 2006 brawl with Florida International and the still-unsolved 2006 murder of defensive end Bryan Pata. "After that, it wasn't."
The fact that McCarron would attempt to square off with a 292-pound defensive tackle also makes more sense when one learns that he already has cheated death once. When McCarron was five, an accidental application of the accelerator on a personal watercraft sent him flying face-first into a dock. McCarron remembers making a sharp turn, and he remembers waking up. His parents have filled in the gaps, telling him that doctors brought in a grief specialist to help them cope with the likelihood that McCarron's injuries would be fatal. "They let them go in and see me," McCarron said. "Because they thought I was going to be dead."
McCarron obviously survived, but it took doctors eight hours of surgery and 86 staples to repair his mutilated face. The surgeons were fantastic; to the naked eye, there is no evidence of the accident today. "If you ever look closely, from here all the way to here is a real big scar," McCarron said, tracing a line just beneath his hairline from one side of his head to the other. "If I've got to live with that to be here, that's fine with me."
If McCarron seems unfazed by the pressure that comes with one of the highest profile jobs in sports, the perspective gained from the accident offers a partial explanation. Another explanation is that because he didn't grow up wanting to be the next Watts or Jay Barker or Joe Namath, the pressure doesn't feel as heavy as it would to someone who dreamed his entire life of wearing a crimson helmet with a number on the side. If anything, McCarron is grateful his success at Alabama means so much to his mother, father and stepfather. "I'm just glad," McCarron said, "that my parents get to live their dream through me."
The dream-come-true would only get sweeter if McCarron could help the Tide to a BCS title. To do that, McCarron will have to play better than he did in the first meeting against LSU. On Nov. 5, he completed 16-of-28 passes for 199 yards -- one below his season average -- but he threw a costly interception. He also reined in his fiery, excitable nature at Saban's urging. McCarron and his coaches now believe that hampered McCarron's game, and they don't plan to make the same mistake twice. "He is an emotional guy," Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. "Yet I love it when he kind of gets going. That was a great learning experience for him. He's starting to understand how he plays his best."
If McCarron winds up waving his arms Monday with no semblance of rhythm or finds himself facemask-to-facemask with a defensive lineman, it probably means Alabama's offense is moving the football. It also means Jones may have more material to work with the next time he needles his quarterback. That's fine with McCarron. All he knows is he won't restrain himself.
"This game," McCarron said, "I've got to show some emotion."