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January 5, 2012NEW ORLEANS | The maturing process for AJ McCarron began long before his first loss as ?the University of Alabama's starting quarterback against LSU in November. It came long before his first win as a starter against Kent State two months earlier, and before his limited action as a backup in 2010.
It began by simply watching Greg McElroy walk the same path McCarron's walking as a first-year starter at the game's limelight position, and eventually stepping onto a national championship stage.
"AJ had done a good job as an understudy," said Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. "One of the great things there, that you kind of lose focus on, is that he had an opportunity to learn from Greg how to prepare. Greg was a great study for AJ.?I'm really proud about the way he's progressed."
He's progressed, in fact, in remarkably similar fashion to McElroy's 2009 BCS National Championship season.
Both navigated their first years excelling at the thing Saban may value most in a quarterback: limiting turnovers. McCarron has thrown only five interceptions in his first 12 starts. McElroy had thrown only four through the same number of starts in 2009. Both threw exactly 16 touchdown passes over that span, and their yardage totals fell within 200 yards of one another.
Both quarterbacks had the benefit of a powerful running game and an effective line.
And now, both have the same chance to pull off the NFL equivalent of winning a Super Bowl as a rookie. However McCarron's first year might mirror McElroy's, McCarron isn't afraid to bring his own personality to his play.
"During the Florida game I was getting the crowd going and coach (Nick Saban) told me to calm down," McCarron said. "After the LSU game, he told me to play with emotion again, that he missed that. I've got to come out and play with emotion this game like I always do."
McCarron said the experience he has gathered through 12 career starts over the last four months has come to make him feel like a veteran.
"I've done a pretty good job so far. Coming in your first year, you're not going to know a whole lot going into it," McCarron said. "As of now I feel like I've been here forever. This season's taken a long time and I feel like I've seen everything, especially going against our defense every day. They throw everything in the book at you."
Center William Vlachos was quick to point out exactly what sort of challenge McCarron's first year has been, be it on the field or off it.
"Playing quarterback at Alabama is extremely hard. The scrutiny and pressure and expectation you deal with on a day to day basis is something I couldn't imagine," Vlachos said. "It's something I have to deal with playing center, so I couldn't imagine have to deal with it on the level of playing quarterback."
McElwain said checking to a different play before the snap has been a strength of McCarron's this season. Typically, that's an area of quarterback play that is best left to more experienced quarterbacks.
"You keep adding with every quarterback. When they handle one thing, now it's time to move onto the next," McElwain said. "Now you just keep filling up that toolbox. He does a great job in the check game. He really does. He's got a great understanding of it. He's made some really, really good checks."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.