Greg McElroy confident in his skills
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The one attribute most associated with Alabama senior quarterback Greg McElroy is that he doesn't make mistakes.
Be still your heart. That's hardly the stuff of stardom. Girls don't want to date the quarterback because he doesn't make mistakes. In Hollywood, the love interest is never a CPA.
"That's fine," McElroy said. He has heard the litany.
"'You don't have first-round talent. You don't have a rocket arm. You don't have all these things,'" McElroy said. "OK, let's focus on the things I do have. I have a national championship ring, and I have 14 wins to my credit."
McElroy went into a long discourse on the benefit of not turning the ball over, what coaches refer to as managing the game.
"If you're able to move the sticks and find the open receivers and make the correct run checks and pick the right plays, that's obviously very positive," McElroy said. "If you're able to minimize the mistakes, that just proves you're very positive."
When he finished, satisfied he had made his point, concern crept into his voice.
"You don't think that's going to come off wrong when I say that I got the ring?" McElroy said. "That won't sound bad, will it? I don't want it to sound arrogant."
McElroy can be a walking contradiction: a competitor and a pleaser, an athlete and a scholar, a human being and a perfectionist, an Alabama quarterback with auburn hair.
McElroy also has a 14-0 record as a starter. As every Crimson Tide fan can recite, he hasn't lost a start since eighth grade. Although he threw for 2,508 yards, 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions last season, McElroy endured predictable highs and lows as he learned on the job. After all, he had sat behind John Parker Wilson for the previous three seasons.
Through it all, Alabama won every game. The Crimson Tide had a team tailor-made for an inexperienced quarterback. The defense proved as impenetrable as Bleak House. All-American kick returner Javier Arenas provided field position when the offense couldn't. And tailback Mark Ingram took over the game when McElroy couldn't.
Ingram, who has a Heisman Trophy on his mantel, is back for his junior season. He has three returning offensive linemen and fifth-year senior H-back Preston Dial in front of him. Yet the other elements that Alabama rode to the national championship are missing. The defense is young. Arenas is a Kansas City Chief. Kicker Leigh Tiffin is no longer there to bail out McElroy by making 30 of 35 field goals.
If the Crimson Tide are to repeat as SEC champion, much less national champion, McElroy hasn't the luxury of lows.
That pretty much describes what head coach Nick Saban wants from the player running his offense. Saban doesn't want a star. He wants a point guard. Saban won the 2003 BCS championship at LSU with quarterback Matt Mauck, a future dentist.
Rhodes less traveled
A football player who wins a Rhodes Scholarship is as improbable as, oh, a quarterback who sits for three years and then leads his team to an undefeated season and a national championship. For Greg McElroy, applying for the coveted year of study at the University of Oxford speaks to McElroy about a life beyond football.
"Is it something I just want on my résumé? Is it something I can really use and expand on my knowledge, what I've learned here at Alabama?" McElroy asked. " I just want to be able to have a full understanding of which direction I want to go. Do I want to go into politics? Do I want to be the next commissioner of the NFL? Do I want to be a GM?"
He isn't limiting his thinking, up to and including the most important job in the world.
"I want to give myself every opportunity to be successful," McElroy said, "whether that's on the playing field or in the front office or maybe even the Oval Office, which is obviously a pipe dream. That's the direction I want to go, and I want to give myself every opportunity to have success in whatever endeavor I choose to pursue."
-- Ivan Maisel
"The thing we emphasize is that you are the distributor," Saban said. "You're going to hand it off or throw it. You don't have to take it on yourself to make all the plays yourself. As long as we kick the ball at the end of a possession -- punt it, kick a field goal or an extra point -- we can win. When we give the ball to the other team, we can't."
McElroy had his big games at the beginning and the end of last season. He threw for 938 yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games of the season and 507 yards and two touchdowns in the next four. But he emerged from the other end of the slump.
Trailing Auburn 21-20 in late November, McElroy led a 15-play drive in the fourth quarter for the winning touchdown on the road against his school's archrival. A week later, nursing three broken ribs he had suffered in the third quarter, McElroy directed a 17-play drive for the game-clinching touchdown in a 32-13 rout of Florida to win the SEC championship.
The rib injury limited McElroy in the BCS Championship Game against Texas. Guarded by a painkiller and extra padding, he completed 6 of 12 passes for 58 yards. But McElroy managed the game, and Alabama won.
McElroy is physically healthy. He feels much better beginning this season than he did last, and his confident mien has replaced the mask of imperturbability he wore a year ago. Although South Carolina intercepted McElroy twice and limited him to 92 passing yards in Alabama's 20-6 victory last season, Gamecocks defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson complimented McElroy.
"You can't rattle him mentally," Johnson said after the game.
McElroy believes there's no higher praise.
"Obviously, as a first-year guy, you're going to feel overwhelmed at some point," McElroy said. "Now, the toughest thing for a quarterback is, do you keep that feeling internal? Or do you let everybody else on the sideline, in the huddle, in the interviews see it? I tried my very hardest last year to keep it within. If you can never let them see you sweat, and I know that's a cliché, then you've done your job as a quarterback. It's given defensive coordinators nightmares because they are sitting there thinking, 'We can't hit this guy.' 'This guy has got us figured out.' They'll play more base coverages."
What's more, McElroy is no longer a first-year guy. As the Crimson Tide dive into the heart of their preseason practice, he feels so much more in command than he did a year ago. He looks it, too.
"He's just a lot more confident," Ingram said of his quarterback. "He knows a lot more about the game. He managed the game real well. He's just a great leader out there. He's real calm. He motivates the young guys to be the best they can be."
McElroy realizes the value of a confident quarterback.
"Everybody has insecurities," McElroy said. "Whoever can best hide those from your teammates is going to be the most successful. You see a guy like Tom Brady, who literally will walk off the field, take off his helmet and not have a drop of sweat coming down his face. He's so cool, calm and collected that the confidence just permeates his other teammates strictly because he is so confident.
"I have obviously a lot more confidence in my ability to compare and understand the adversity and difficulties that are going to come into fruition here the next couple of months," McElroy said. "I think I'm better prepared physically as well. I think my timing is better. I think my rapport with my teammates is better. I think last year a lot of people had questions, not only on the outside of our football complex but also within our football complex. I think a lot of people just weren't sure of how good we were going to be. But this year it's totally different."
One man's confidence may be another man's arrogance. But as the late pitcher and philosopher Dizzy Dean said, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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