Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy hasn't yet started a football game for the Crimson Tide, but the junior has already lived through Friday night lights.
McElroy -- who is expected to start under center when the Crimson Tide open the season Sept. 5 against Virginia Tech in Atlanta's Georgia Dome -- played under a spotlight for one season at Southlake Carroll High School in Texas.
As a senior in 2005, McElroy took over a Dragons team that had won 47 of its past 48 games and won two Class 5A, District II state championships in three seasons. He replaced quarterback Chase Daniel, who was the 2004 national high school player of the year and later became a record-setting passer at Missouri.
"I can't say it was pressure," McElroy said. "It was what was expected of you. It was the only thing we were used to: winning and winning state championships. It was the only thing we knew how to do."
McElroy, who spent the past two seasons playing behind Alabama starter John Parker Wilson, led Southlake Carroll to a 16-0 record in his only season as a starter. With McElroy throwing for 4,687 yards and a Class 5A state-record 56 touchdowns, the Dragons won their third state championship in four seasons.
"It's a town where football is very important," said North Texas coach Todd Dodge, who had a 98-11 record and won four state titles in seven seasons at Southlake Carroll, in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth. "Greg was playing a position where the last two starters had been named state player of the year. He was able to handle those expectations. There's something to be said for being patient. He had to be patient at the high school level and college level. It's paid off for him."
McElroy believes his experience at Southlake Carroll will help him prepare for his first season as a starter at Alabama. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban hasn't yet named McElroy the starter, but his performance during spring practice left little doubt it's his job to lose heading into preseason camp. McElroy will have to hold off highly regarded freshman Star Jackson and walk-on Thomas Darrah.
"He has shown he's far and away our best quarterback right now," Saban told reporters after the Crimson Tide's spring game last month. "He knows that somebody's going to have to beat him out."
It didn't take McElroy long to realize the pressure involved with playing quarterback for the Dragons. The team held an autograph session at a local restaurant and more than 500 fans showed up. His jersey was sold in local stores. The waiting list for Southlake Carroll season tickets is five years long.
In his first start for Southlake Carroll, McElroy threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns in a victory at Midland Lee. He played the game with a fractured right collarbone, an injury he had suffered in practice a week earlier. McElroy's first start was broadcast on statewide TV. More than 10,000 Dragons fans made a five-hour drive to attend the game.
"It's a lifestyle," McElroy said. "People live and die by Dragon football. It's not much different from Alabama football. People live for Friday nights at Southlake, and they live for Saturday nights at Alabama."
Because McElroy played two seasons behind Daniel at Southlake Carroll, he largely flew under the radar of college recruiters. But during McElroy's sophomore year of high school, Daniel played varsity baseball. Daniel's absence allowed McElroy to take snaps with the first-team offense during spring practice, and recruiters soon noticed his talent.
It's a lifestyle. People live and die by Dragon football. It's not much different from Alabama football. People live for Friday nights at Southlake, and they live for Saturday nights at Alabama.
-- Greg McElroy
McElroy attended football camps at Alabama, BYU, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas Tech and USC, along with camps at other schools. McElroy had 10 scholarship offers before he started his first high school game. He committed to play for the Red Raiders only three weeks into his senior season.
McElroy couldn't have written a better script for his senior season at Southlake Carroll. He led the Dragons to an unbeaten record, defeating unbeaten opponents in each of the first five rounds of the state playoffs. McElroy threw for 331 yards and four touchdowns in the Dragons' 34-20 victory over Katy in the Class 5A, District II state championship game, which was played in front of a crowd of 29,840 fans at Texas Stadium.
"It starts with his accuracy," Dodge said. "His senior year, we had a team that a lot of people felt was the greatest offense the state of Texas has ever produced. We had four wide receivers get Division I scholarships. He did a great job of spreading the ball around. He's a guy that just kept getting better and better. He was very diligent with his work."
Nearly everyone in Southlake believed McElroy was the perfect fit for coach Mike Leach's pass-happy offense at Texas Tech. A few weeks after leading the Dragons to a state title, McElroy watched the Red Raiders practice in Dallas before the 2006 Cotton Bowl. He also watched the Crimson Tide practice that day.
McElroy wore Texas Tech colors to the Cotton Bowl when he watched the Red Raiders play the Crimson Tide. Alabama won 13-10 on Jamie Christensen's wobbly 45-yard field goal as time expired.
"I about pulled my hair out when I saw Jamie Christensen kick one of the ugliest field goals I'd ever seen," McElroy said.
Later that night, then-Alabama coach Mike Shula called McElroy and offered him a scholarship. McElroy visited the Tuscaloosa campus a couple of weeks later and reneged on his commitment to Texas Tech. He signed a national letter of intent to play for the Crimson Tide.
Oddly enough, McElroy grew up cheering for Auburn because his grandfather attended the school. His father, Greg McElroy, played football at Hawaii in the 1970s and is now executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Dallas Cowboys. McElroy wears No. 12 at Alabama because Tide legend Joe Namath was his father's favorite quarterback.
"Obviously, there are some Texas Tech fans that are still bitter," McElroy said. "But they have a great quarterback. It worked out well for everyone."
After waiting three years at Alabama, McElroy hopes his college career ends the same way his high school career did.
"You can ask anybody who has been around me," McElroy said. "I'm a team-first guy. If that requires me to be patient, I'm going to do it to the utmost of my abilities. I compete against myself. I don't compete against opponents. That's what Southlake taught me. It taught me to have the confidence to play high school football at the highest level. I don't see why I can't play college football at the highest level, too."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.