By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Greg McElroy doesn't look much different than he did after last spring practice broke.
Still freckle-faced and quick with a smile, the Alabama quarterback seems not to have let his personality be affected by the year gone by.
On the field, though, he's much different.
Just 12 months after thoroughly beating Star Jackson for the starting quarterback job, McElroy earned SEC and national championship rings. Now, free from the continual pressure of playing for his job, the fifth-year senior is in a familiar place under somewhat foreign circumstances.
"I keep reminding myself, this is the first time returning as a starter since my eighth-grade season," he said this past week.
His comfort level in the Alabama offense is "night and day," he said, and "we've only scratched the surface."
As a fourth-year junior who had watched from the sideline for three seasons, McElroy's evolution spanned the boundaries of both extremes. From the lows of the offensive mysteries at Ole Miss and against South Carolina to the final drive at Auburn and the SEC championship game that followed, growth was the inevitable byproduct.
McElroy threw for 2,508 yards while completing 60.9 percent of his passes and tossing just four interceptions last season.
"I've really come a long way, not only in my physical ability, but in the sense that I feel so comfortable," McElroy said. "I watch film and I just look like a completely different player compared to last spring."
The same goes for the rest of the offense that returns the core of its championship unit, including running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson plus receivers Julio Jones and Marquis Maze.
"You know, usually coming back from spring break, it's a pretty tough day," McElroy said. "The offense is kind of fooling around; it's just difficult being away from each other for 10 days. But we just picked right up where we left off."
Having those extra practices leading up to the BCS title game in January helped bridge the gap between seasons and the offense "so much further ahead than we were last year," McElroy said.
Ask coach Nick Saban about the progress McElroy made throughout the 2009 season, and he'll say specific memories don't come to mind.
"But I'm surely pleased with the progress he made from that point and the way he played throughout the year," Saban said. "His leadership, his experience, his knowledge of the offense are all things that have carried over."
Said Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner: "I remember coming into last year the whole offense was pretty much new. There were question marks everywhere -- running back, quarterback, the line, who was going to help out Julio. We're all vets now, the whole offense, even the people in two-deep.
"So I think we're all comfortable out there. We're clicking. It's not like we have to structure a whole new personnel (group). We're just picking up where we left off."