AJ McCarron fit for BCS pressure

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Alabama center Barrett Jones tends to tread lightly around his quarterback, AJ McCarron, when they're on the road.

They're roommates, and the back-and-forth banter between the two is priceless.

"Skill players are different. They're a whole different breed," Jones joked. "They're always concerned with how they look. I always have to let him take the first shower, because I know he's going to take longer."

The gleam in Jones' eye is unmistakable anytime he can get a good verbal jab in against McCarron.

The only thing that compares is the gleam in Jones' eye when McCarron is directing the Alabama offense with the game on the line.

"He's in command out there, and his confidence spreads to everybody on the team," Jones said. "We're both perfectionists and bicker a lot in a brotherly way, sometimes to the point of yelling on the field."

Jones will think that the Crimson Tide should go one way on a certain play. McCarron will think they should go another.

"I'm usually right," Jones beamed.

Being the fierce competitor that he is, McCarron isn't about to let his All-America center have the last word.

"We mess with each other almost every play," McCarron said. "He'll be the first one to tell you that I save his butt a bunch, too. He will want to slide protection one way, and I'll want to slide it another way. After he sees it, he turns around and says, 'Yeah, you're right.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I know. Just listen to me.'"

It's that kind of confidence (or swagger, or whatever you want to call it) that has made McCarron a perfect fit for the starting quarterback job at Alabama. Growing up in the state, McCarron understood the inherent pressure that comes with that job. He also came to understand that playing quarterback for Nick Saban is one of those pressure-cooker jobs that not everyone can handle.

There were some hiccups along the way. McCarron still winces when he thinks back to Alabama's 9-6 loss to LSU in overtime last season, and his late interception on the goal line earlier this season against Texas A&M that sealed Alabama's fate in that game.

But, really, ever since his Offensive MVP performance against LSU in the BCS National Championship Game last season, it's been a steady climb for McCarron, who's been preparing for this stage his entire life. No moment is too big for him. Nothing keeps him down, and he's learned to embrace everything that comes with Alabama football.

His parents, Tony McCarron and Dee Dee Bonner, were both huge Alabama fans when AJ was growing up in Mobile. AJ was a Miami fan, however, and when it came time to pick a college, he nearly went to Oklahoma. In fact, the night before signing day, he told his mother that he had decided on the Sooners, and she started crying.

He had a change of heart overnight and chose to stay home and play for the Crimson Tide. He knew what he was getting into, because he'd seen it from his own family.

"We used to have parties, and we'd gather up and watch the game on Saturdays when I was little, and you could hear my whole family going nuts and cursing at people, so I've seen it all," McCarron said. "I know to take everything with a grain of salt.

"It's helped me handle the pressure and the negative comments a lot better than a quarterback from somewhere else. I've seen it. My dad was that fan when I was growing up that as soon as a player messed up, he would start dogging him. You wouldn't know why or if the receiver ran a wrong route. He just started dogging him. I've seen it growing up and know how to deal with it, so it doesn't bother me."

It also helps that McCarron's zest for winning championships matches that of Alabama's rabid fan base, which has been known to swallow up coaches and players with its insatiable appetite for winning titles.

"I love playing here," McCarron said. "It's the best fans in the world, but this place can be hard to play at. Everybody gets so used to winning, and when we don't win, it's like the world is coming to an end.

"That's the life we created here. Coach [Saban] always says, 'We helped create that beast, and now we've got to live up to it.'"

It hasn't been a problem for McCarron, who heads into Monday's Discover BCS National Championship matchup with Notre Dame with 26 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He leads the country in passing efficiency and has taken ownership of the entire offense.

"I know everything now," said McCarron, who's 24-2 as a starter. "Last year, I knew just my job and not what everybody else had to do. That comes with time. You have to grow as a leader and grow as a quarterback. This year, I know everything in and out, and it shows because coach Saban allows me to check in and check out of plays. Almost every snap, I have an option.

"Last year, maybe one play a game, I could do it."

Saban said McCarron's added maturity, both as a player and as a leader, has been one of the driving forces in Alabama getting back to the national title game this season.

"It's amazing how much these kids change, and AJ is so much more mature than he was," Saban said. "That's allowed us to grow as a team and has made a big difference in a lot of things we're able to do."

One of the untold stories about this season is how much pain McCarron has endured and how he has kept going. He injured his right knee against Missouri and then took a wicked shot to his back a few weeks later against Mississippi State.

"It doesn't matter how big you are or what your size is. You're going to take a beating," McCarron said. "You're going to take some licks. I played though it.

"You want your team to follow you. Anytime you get any type of injury, you have to try and play through it and show them that, 'Hey, I'm here for us, and I'm going to play no matter what.'"