- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Most players on Alabama's roster are like Anthony Steen. The veteran right guard isn't scared of his coach, necessarily, but he has a healthy fear of what happens when Nick Saban gets upset. When Saban calls you into his office and pushes a button to close the door behind you, you know something's wrong. It's a scene straight out of a B-rated thriller: Once the door locks, there's no telling if you're coming back out.
AJ McCarron, though, isn't like most players. He doesn't wait to get called upstairs. He marches there himself.
Five years ago, when McCarron was distinguished mostly by his flop of hair and spread of tattoos, he showed up to his first scrimmage at Alabama expecting a spot on the depth chart that wasn't there. Upset, he went straight to the coach's office. What happened next is burned into Saban's mind forever.
"AJ was on our team for 11 days, and he thought he should be second team and we played him on third team," Saban recalled. "He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn't play with the second team."
Saban's message to his young quarterback: "We're only evaluating you on one thing today and that was leadership, and you failed dramatically."
The rest, as they say, is history.
In the past four years, coach and quarterback have become remarkably similar. Their mannerisms are often the same -- kicking dirt, slapping hands, shouting at players -- as are their attitudes. Imperfection in any form isn't tolerated, and mental mistakes are disdained.
"AJ and Coach Saban get along better than anyone else on the team," Steen said. "They have their certain jokes that I don't even get sometimes, talking straight about football, too. I just pretend and laugh with them.
"The other day we were in a meeting and he said something to Coach picking at him and he went right back at him. I know I wouldn't get into an argument with Coach."
Their bond didn't start out that way. McCarron was a lot like his fellow teammates when he first got to campus, a "results-oriented guy" who focused on scoring touchdowns and making big plays rather than the process of the day-to-day and what it meant to be a leader. Now he's matured into a guy who wants to play winning football at all costs.
When McCarron was asked at SEC media days what he thought of the seeming lack of attention he receives despite winning so many games, he responded in typical Saban form. He wanted to meet who "they" were, the ones who were saying all of these things about him.
"It's funny to me," he said. "Sometimes I feel like any other quarterback in the country wins two national championships and he's the best thing since sliced bread. And I'm still labeled a game manager.
"It's fine with me. They can call me a bench rider. As long as we keep winning, I don't care."
Saban wasn't there to hear his quarterback's response, but it's safe to say he would have enjoyed it. Maybe more than anything, it's a sign of how far McCarron has come.
McCarron is now the unquestioned leader of the two-time defending champion Crimson Tide and a safe bet to land somewhere in the early rounds of next year's NFL draft. He finished last season ranked first in the country in passing efficiency, and this year he has even more talent at receiver with DeAndrew White, Chris Black and Kenny Bell all back from injury. Amari Cooper has progressed into an All-American talent, and Kevin Norwood is as steady a target as they come in the SEC.
The offense, Bell said, has a chance to be the best in college football.
"We do, especially since we have the people we have on offense," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receivers, a great offensive line. We can be one of the stellar offenses in the country."
A year stronger and a year wiser, McCarron is one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Teammates say they've noticed that his strength and accuracy are improved, and no one is asking about his commitment to the game.
"AJ gets better every day, every year," junior wideout Christion Jones said. "He's going to get better no matter if it's the passing game or better fakes."
McCarron, for his part, isn't willing to self-analyze or speculate -- yet another example of the mirror image of Saban he's become. There's still some of the hot-tempered freshman in him somewhere, but much of it has changed to reflect the coach he's followed into three national championships in four seasons.
"I'd be lying to say no, the Heisman, I've never thought of it," he said. "My mom still has a picture of me ... dressed up in a Bama football costume and [doing] the Heisman pose. It's always been a dream of mine, but at the same time I'm not going to let my personal goals come in the way of our team goals. If I achieve that, that's great. I'm happy.
"But at the same time, I'm a team-first guy. I've always been that way. You'll never hear anybody say I'm selfish in any type of way. That's when your program and team starts to fall off, when you're not team-oriented and you're more into personal goals. That's the ingredients for failure there."
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough