Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron will make his first NFL start Sunday against the 49ers, but he’s already familiar with a number of his opponents.
He was on the same Alabama team as defensive lineman Quinton Dial, for instance. He played against former LSU safety Eric Reid -- “E-Reid,” to McCarron -- in college and he’s been watching NaVorro Bowman on television for several years.
Then, of course, there’s Neko.
“Me and Neko were on the same team ever since we were 7 years old,” McCarron said on a conference call. “We won three or four championships together, I can’t remember.”
Neko, for the uninitiated, is safety Jimmie Ward. That’s what everyone in Mobile, Ala., called him. In fact, if you referred to him as “Jimmie,” one of his boyhood teammates might not know to whom you’re referring.
“I don’t call him Jimmie. I guess everybody else does (now),” McCarron said. “When I hear his name being announced on TV, they always say, ‘Jimmie Ward,’ but I’ve never called him that.”
Neko is Ward’s middle name. Actually, it’s a little more complex than that.
“My full middle name is ‘Neko Suave,’ ” Ward told the 49ers team website after he was drafted in 2014. “My mother wanted to name me after the singer, Rico Suave, but she put a twist to it.”
When Ward made a big play at Davidson High School in Mobile, the crowd would chant, “Ne-ko! Su-ave!” McCarron, who is taking over for injured starter Andy Dalton (thumb), never experienced that. He played at a different school and never faced Ward or safety Jaquiski Tartt, who played alongside Ward at Davidson.
Tartt starts for the 49ers at strong safety. Ward plays nickel cornerback and has been in on 61 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season.
Ward left Sunday’s game in Cleveland because of an elbow injury. Jim Tomsula on Monday said there were no fractures and that Ward had suffered a contusion.