SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron may be making his first NFL start Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, but when he looks across the line of scrimmage on certain passing downs, McCarron will peer into a familiar set of eyes.
"Me and Neko, we were on the same team, I think, ever since we were like 7 years old," McCarron said on a conference call with Bay Area media this week. "We won three or four park ball championships.
"We grew up in same area ... I've known Neko for a really long time."
Neko, of course, is Niners defensive back Jimmie Ward, whose full middle name is "Neko Suave." Yes, a riff on that one-hit wonder Gerardo and his song "Rico Suave" that was Billboard's No. 89 song of 1991, the year Ward was born.
Ward, the Niners' first-round draft pick out of Northern Illinois in 2014, and McCarron, a Bengals' fifth-round selection from Alabama the same year, were Pop Warner teammates for the Municipal Raiders in Mobile, Alabama.
"He was always the quarterback," Ward said. "I played linebacker."
Yes, Ward, who is now the Niners' nickel defensive back, was pretty sure he picked off McCarron in practice as a youngster. And sure, Ward sees some of the same characteristics all these years and markedly different college pedigrees later.
"He does kind of the same stuff since we were young," Ward said. "He looks off the receivers. He's a pocket passer, of course.
"I know AJ, so I know he's a pretty good quarterback. I know once he gets comfortable in the pocket he's a very accurate quarterback and he can make good throws."
With Andy Dalton suffering a broken right thumb last week, this will be McCarron's fifth career NFL appearance after winning consecutive national championships for the Crimson Tide in 2011 and 2012.
Ward, meanwhile, had his first career interception, a pick-six, at the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. And while Ward and McCarron went to different high schools and never faced each other as preps, Ward is not the only member of the Niners' defense with whom McCarron is familiar.
But it always comes back to when Ward played organized football for the first time, and the guy who was his quarterback.
"I don't call him Jimmie, [but] I guess everybody else does," McCarron said. "When his name is being announced on TV, they always say, 'Jimmie Ward,' but I've never called him that."
"Neko," no doubt, hopes to call McCarron something else on Sunday ... the losing quarterback.
"He's going to be ready to go," said Ward, who has 39 tackles and four passes defensed.
"I'm pretty sure AJ's putting in a lot of work right now, studying our defense and trying to see what's our weak points and what's our strong points right now."