There is enough depth at running back to run the wishbone. There is enough depth at wide receiver to run the spread.
Quarterback AJ McCarron’s calling card in Alabama’s pro-style offense, however, has been balance. McCarron, who begins his third season as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, is trying to be the first college QB to win three consecutive national championships.
Last season, McCarron guided the offense to 3,185 yards rushing and 3,052 yards passing. Only one receiver – tight end Michael Williams – has departed. Running back T.J. Yeldon returns after a 1,000-yard season and the depth at that position includes Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and as many as four touted freshmen.
Asked about all those weapons at his disposal, McCarron smiled and said, “I feel great.”
“That’s the biggest thing with quarterback and skill guys -- you’ve got to have trust,” McCarron said. “We’ve got all the ingredients to have a special year. We’ve just got to put them together at the right time.”
That time starts Saturday afternoon against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Alabama coach Nick Saban credited McCarron for creating the balance that exists in the Tide’s offense.
“The guy that gives you the most ability to do a lot of things is the quarterback,” the coach said. “The quarterback can handle a lot of situations in the game. I think that gives you the most flexibility on offense in terms of how much you can check in the game, how he can handle and redirect, whether it’s protection or running plays, and AJ has always done a really good job of that.
“… We always want to be explosive offensively, and hopefully we can do that in the running game and the passing game if we can get in the right play more often. And I think that's something the quarterback can help us do, and hopefully because of that we can take advantage of all the skill players we have whether they’re runners or catchers.”
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer raved about the efficiency of Alabama’s offense and noted that McCarron “is a key, key player.”
“He’s got the experience, he’s got the national championships, he gets the ball to the right people, makes great decisions,” Beamer said of McCarron. “I’d say excellent quarterback – above excellent, probably.
“For a college quarterback to have that experience and have those people around him and have his talent and have his game and have his intelligence, I’d say that's about as good as it gets.”
McCarron talked in training camp about working on very technical things, concentrating on his lower body to help on long throws.
Tide offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier smiled when he heard that. It is another step in any quarterback’s growth.
“As in anything we do, you start with the big picture first,” Nussmeier said. “We’ve got to get the big picture and do things right to give ourselves a chance. And one of the things we talk about at that position is playing winning football. The first thing is, ‘I’ve got to take care of the football and be a good decision maker.’”
The fifth-year senior is past that point. He set a school record with 30 touchdown passes in 2012 against three interceptions.
In all, he’s 25-2 as a starter with 49 career touchdown passes and eight interceptions. He led the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 175.28.
You don’t get those numbers without taking care of the ball and making good decisions.
Nussmeier continued discussing McCarron’s development.
“As you grow, then it becomes about the smaller things, it becomes about technique-type things with AJ,” the offensive coordinator said at the start of training camp. “We dialed in on several technique things that really we think can help take his game to the next level. And I can’t say enough about how focused he’s been.”
Safety Vinnie Sunseri recalled McCarron’s “game manager” role and has seen him evolve into a something much more.
“My freshman year, everybody was calling AJ a game manager,” Sunseri said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s what he did really well. He handed the ball off to Trent (Richardson), he handed it to Eddie (Lacy). He did the little passes every now and then.
“He’s really grown into a bigger role and has actually developed the receivers in a great way. He’s a great guy, too. So having him back there, being the leader that he is and evolving like he has, has been fun to watch. … But he’s really worked on his connection with the receivers.”
As Alabama and McCarron chase history this season – only Johnny Lujack of Notre Dame won three national titles at quarterback (1943, 1946-47) in a college career interrupted by World War II – the senior from Mobile insists he’s not burdened by preseason expectations.
“I just want us to go out and play our game, play to the best of our ability, and I think we’ll be fine at the end of the day,” McCarron said on Monday. “I can’t worry about what everyone else thinks, what you guys are writing, how we’re supposed to do this year. We’ve got to go out and play our game.”
It’s a team thing, but this is McCarron’s team. A reporter asked him which of the offensive linemen could challenge him the way center Barrett Jones did last season in the national title game.
He gave a serious answer to a light-hearted question.
“I don’t know about that,” the quarterback said. “I’ve been here five years. If I don’t know this offense inside out, then something’s wrong with me.
“They’re going to make their calls. I trust them to make their calls – (center Ryan) Kelly, the rest of the guys. But if I feel different about it, it’s why you play quarterback. You’re the leader. I’m going to override it and go with something I feel is better.”
It’s hard to argue with the results.