ATLANTA | Waiting to intercept sons and steal hugs between the locker room and team bus, the families of Alabama players congregated just outside glass doors in a quiet corner of the Georgia Dome on Saturday night.
AJ McCarron wasn't willing to wait that long.
Last year's Alabama quarterback stood inside, alone, waiting for his protégé.
Blake Sims, a fifth year senior who backed up McCarron a season ago, was the man now, earning his first career start and helping Alabama to a 33-23 win over West Virginia.
Sure, it wasn't done with the efficiency as vintage McCarron - no one expected that here - but ultimately Sims did what McCarron did a lot: Keep his team steady and guide Alabama to a victory.
"Awesome. Unbelievable game for him," McCarron said, unable to keep his eyes off the corner where players were emerging in crimson warm-up suits one by one. "I'm Blake's biggest fan, I've loved him since he was my backup and he's come a long ways from knowing the game, making the right reads, understanding situations. I can't say enough good things about him.
Unbelievable game for him. I'm happy as hell."
Most of the offseason quarterback hoopla surrounded Florida State transfer Jake Coker, so much that even UA coach Nick Saban had to remind the public that Sims was still a factor. All the while, Sims quietly took control of the competition.
Though a battle was waged throughout fall camp, and according to Saban, one still technically remains at quarterback, Saban told the team on Friday that Sims would be getting the start against West Virginia. He said before Saturday's game that it was Sims' superior understanding of the scheme that gave him the edge.
McCarron did his part to help Sims prepare, staying in touch even as he left Tuscaloosa and prepared for the NFL draft. They exchanged texts often. Before Saturday's game, they talked during warmups about making good decisions. They even have a signal for each other - McCarron points his index fingers to his head. Sims does it back.
"I try to tell him to play smart," McCarron said.
"I can tell you, I'm like a big brother to him, he's always looked up to me and it's an honor to do that. When he listens to me, he zones in and literally takes in every word. He really cares, really listens, and I just told him play within yourself."
Even still, Sims took the field with little certainty about how his start would play out or whether he'd walk out of this building as the starter or the backup.
McCarron knows what that pressure is like, too.
In 2011, McCarron, then a redshirt sophomore, was in a similar battle with Phillip Sims that dragged into the regular season. McCarron took hold of the job early in the year and made history from there, leading the Crimson Tide to a pair of national titles in three years as the starter.
"It makes the nerves jump up a little bit more when you're in that situation because you want to play within the system but you kind of feel like you have to prove yourself at the same time, kind of separate yourself," McCarron said. "But as I told Blake before the game, as long as he stays within the system and do what he's supposed to do, doesn't try to make anything extra, he's going to be fine. He'll put them in a good situation to win every game. That's what he did (Saturday). The defense made a good stop at the end and I was proud of him."
There were ups and downs, of course. Sims handled his first pressure throw, a third-and-11 from his own 5, with grace, standing tall in the end zone and finding Amari Cooper for 12 yards. He showed his speed with a 21-yard gain late in the first half that helped set up a field goal and wrangle back some momentum. His interception was thrown into tight coverage in a tight game in the third quarter. A handful of throws were off the mark.
All in all, though, it was a productive first start, and statistically speaking, it even trumped McCarron's first start in 2011.
Knowing what this moment feels like, McCarron waited impatiently to enjoy it.
"He deserved the start, and he's worked hard for it," McCarron said. "Awesome game, that's why I can't wait to see him and talk to him."
That's when Sims turned the corner. McCarron smiled, let out a gasp and hugged him. McCarron then grabbed the sides of his protégé's face.
"Hey … Hey," McCarron said, making sure he had Sims' attention. "I'm so proud of you."
McCarron injury update
AJ McCarron told TideSports.com that his shoulder feels "great" despite being placed on the Cincinnati Bengals' reserve/non-football injury list on Saturday.
With that designation, McCarron, a fifth-round pick by the Bengals in May, will not be able to practice or play for the first six weeks of the NFL season. McCarron, who has not played in any of the Bengals' preseason games, said that he's expecting the wait to be longer.
"I feel good. I've got to be on there for six weeks, then (the Bengals) can file for an extension all the way until Week 15 so they're going to just play the numbers game that way," McCarron said. "But (the shoulder) feels great though."
The Bengals can wait until Week 15 before deciding whether they want to place him on the active roster or on injured reserve. The decision was made on McCarron's status on Saturday because NFL teams were required their rosters down to 53 by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
McCarron injured his shoulder during his senior season at Alabama in 2013 but did not miss any playing time. He skipped the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile due to the injury.
ESPN.com reported that McCarron has been on a controlled throwing program in the preseason due to the injury.
-Reach D.C. Reeves at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org.