TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron isn't tipping his hand one way or another.
Whether he's looking to dump the ball off, pitch it out in the flat or go long, the telltale signs aren't there. He'll pat the ball in the pocket, wait and see.
Whether he's looking to get the ball to his possession receiver Kevin Norwood, his speedsters Christion Jones and Kenny Bell, or his rookie standout Amari Cooper is anyone's guess. When he's surveying the defense, jersey numbers are irrelevant.
Through three games, the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide's junior quarterback hasn't turned to any one thing. It's cliche to say he's taking what the defense gives him, but that's exactly what is happening -- with stunning efficiency.
McCarron, the same quarterback who was called a game manager a year ago, has taken his play to another level in 2012. He's managing the game, depending on how you look at it, but this season he's piloting the offense to new heights.
His 196.6 passing efficiency rating -- good enough for third in the country, behind TCU's Casey Pachall and West Virginia's Geno Smith -- tells the story, his seven touchdowns and zero interceptions an introductory chapter.
McCarron has spread the ball around to all of his receivers. Norwood leads the team with seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns, but the drop off from No. 1 to No. 5 isn't drastic. Jones is jockeying for the top spot, having caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games. Cooper has been hot of late, too, catching two balls for 46 yards and a touchdown, respectively, against Arkansas. Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Michael Williams have been in on the action, too.
Guessing where McCarron will go with the football is a fool's errand. Cover up the receivers and he'll check the ball down. True freshman running back T.J. Yeldon is third on the team with six receptions. McCarron's completion distribution from 0 to 9 yards is the exact same as 10-plus -- a clean 50 percent.
"Every pass play is decided off what the defense does," McCarron explained. "I think that's a reflection of the receivers in a way because how hard they've been working during the play to get open. Some plays are just designed to go to certain guys. Other plays are decided to go to the other side of the field.
"It's always good when you can share the ball around; defenses don't know who to key on."
McCarron said the pass distribution might be a by-product of the chemistry between quarterback and receiver. The Mobile, Ala., native isn't playing favorites.
"We're all real close," McCarron said. "We go out to eat all the time, we know what each other's thinking. We know when somebody's having a bad day and what to say to them to pick them back up. I think that definitely helps with the chemistry and the offense."
Jones, the class clown among the receivers at Alabama, knows not to expect McCarron to throw the ball his way unless he's open. Even when a linebacker is covering him in the slot, he's not going to bark at the backfield for attention. That's where watching game film comes into play, he said.
"We've got to play fast and get open for the timing for him. So that's why he spreads the ball so much, because anybody's number can get called."
McCarron credits his offensive line for buying him time to get the ball out to his receivers. The running game comes into play as well. Alabama has been effective on the ground, averaging 186.67 yards per game, and it has helped the passing game in turn. McCarron said he feels the area he has most improved upon this season has been selling play action. Coming into Saturday's game, McCarron was 7-for-11 for 156 yards and three touchdowns on run fakes.
"That's a big thing that's helped me out this year, even on run fakes, I think they all look the same," McCarron said. "Coach [Doug Nussmeier] actually pointed out in the Arkansas game, both my deep pass to Christion on the deep over and, the next series later, to Amari on the sideline, you can really see the secondary and the linebackers suck up. That's what I like seeing."
So far, McCarron is taking pleasure in the little things, seeing the defense lost as to what's coming next. His league-leading stats, however, don't register. His otherworldly passing efficiency rating isn't even on his radar.
Is he a stat guy?
"Not at all," he said. The gaudy numbers are nice, but he'll give the credit elsewhere.
"I think that really reflects on my receivers, shows what kind of catches and how hard they've been working to get those kind of stats or whatever," McCarron said. "I just want to win. I don't really care."