Gene Frenette: Heisman Hopeful -- Bolles QB trusted the "process" to become a star at Alabama
Looking back on his first two years in Alabama’s football program, when strangers and people he knew were skeptical of him evolving into an impactful quarterback, Mac Jones didn’t let any of it faze him.
Not that The Bolles School product totally dismissed the criticism sometimes directed to his face, on social media or subtly mentioned in conversation, but Jones knew the best response was to focus on the grind of daily improvement. In other words, trusting in coach Nick Saban’s mantra of “process,” no matter how cliché or tiresome it sounded.
So Jones immersed himself in the playbook. He often referred to the goals his father, Gordon, outlined in detail on several pages that covered every aspect of his football-related responsibilities. He learned from watching how former starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and the future campus rock star, Tua Tagovailoa, went about their business.
And most important of all, Jones stayed patient, not allowing himself to even think about transferring or earning any other starting job except the one he now operates for the nation’s top-ranked program.
“People might say things [critical] to your face, I really don’t care,” Jones said in a Wednesday phone interview. “People will say all sorts of things, in person and out of person, I never really bought into it, but it’s definitely motivation in its own way.
“Whatever you do, people are either going to criticize you or praise you too much than you deserve, so you have to be just down the middle. If you buy into it too much, then you get put in a corner and you’re not in the right mental state. You just got to kind of roll with the punches.”
Somehow, it has all come together for Jones in rather spectacular fashion this season. Not only has he earned the starting job for a college football blueblood -- first replacing Tagovailoa last year when he got hurt and was later shelved by a hip injury -- but now he’s flourishing beyond most anyone’s expectations.
Jones is considered one of the top Heisman Trophy contenders, along with Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, all of whom are putting up big numbers in this truncated, COVID-19 season.
While Trask has thrown for a remarkable 34 touchdown passes in UF’s more pass-heavy offense, Jones has been dominant in his own right. He owns a 76.2 completion percentage, a 23-3 TD-interception ratio, a nation-leading 208.0 efficiency rating and averages an eye-popping 12.0 yards per attempt.
Just that part of his resume alone is enough to get Jones in the Heisman conversation. But the 6-foot-3, 220-pound quarterback also has eight touchdown passes of 40-plus yards, a testament to his deep-ball accuracy and ‘Bama receivers making yards after the catch.
Though he and Trask are considered slight Heisman favorites at this point, Jones prefers to sidestep his name being attached to any individual award.
“Allow myself to think about [the Heisman]? Not really,” said Jones. “Coach Saban really does a great job of keeping us focused on what we have to be focused on and everything will take care of itself.”
But when pressed about whether he ever thinks about being a Heisman recipient, Jones acknowledged: “I try not to think about it, and it’s hard. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to just ignore it all. But at the same time, the only important part is helping your team try and win games. And if you win games, then good things happen for everybody.”
‘Bama or bust
For nearly a year, Jones was committed to going to another SEC school, Kentucky, but he began having second thoughts when the Wildcats dismissed offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson after the 2015 season. He had been Jones’ primary recruiter, and Kentucky intending to switch to a more RPO (run-pass option) offense complicated matters.
“That type of offense wasn’t going to be conducive to his skill set,” said Gordon Jones.
“I didn’t know which direction the offense was going to go,” Mac added. “I really didn’t want to take a risk.”
In April 2016, Jones received a scholarship offer from Alabama, but he waited nearly two months before finally committing to Saban in his office. It happened less than 24 hours after Jones got word it would be in his best interest to be at Alabama’s football camp, so his mother, Holly, drove him to Atlanta to pick up Gordon and they drove through the night to get to Tuscaloosa. Mac had already traveled across the country for three years attending football camps, including Elite 11 in California, so what was one more trip to add to the 300,000 miles on Gordon's vehicle?
At the time, Jones’ commitment to the Crimson Tide was bigger news for Kentucky losing a 4-star prospect (one recruiting site labeled him a 3-star) than what ‘Bama might gain. Jones didn’t care much that Tagovailoa, the much-ballyhooed prospect from Hawaii, was part of his signing class. He just wanted a chance to compete for an elite college program under a legendary coach, just as he did at Bolles under the late Corky Rogers.
The parallel wasn’t lost on Jones that it took an injury to Bolles starter Joe Edden during his sophomore year before he got on the field. Jones was used to waiting his turn, so the prospect of sitting behind Hurts (who later transferred to Oklahoma), Tagovailoa and two other quarterbacks when he enrolled before 2017 spring practice didn’t bother him.
“To be honest with you, coach Rogers actually had a big part [in choosing Alabama] because in high school, it was kind of the same way,” Mac said. “I did play a bunch my sophomore year, but a lot of kids would transfer out earlier than that [due to lack of playing time]. I just wanted to play for coach Rogers. I showed my commitment there.”
Jones has done the same thing in Tuscaloosa, waiting his turn behind Hurts and then Tagovailoa, who suffered a season-ending hip injury against Mississippi State last November. He has followed the path Saban laid out for him by getting better each day. Jones has put on about 40 pounds since he first arrived, learning the intricacies of ‘Bama’s offense enough to methodically move up from his original No. 5 spot on the depth chart. There was never any thought of transferring.
“Coming here, I wasn’t ready to play early on, anybody could probably tell you that,” said Jones. “Just physically, I wasn’t there. Mentally, I had a lot of room to grow. I just kind of accepted that. I had to accept the fact I had to make improvements to help the team.
“Plus, I wanted to win championships and I was fortunate to win one my freshman year [as a redshirt]. I obviously didn’t get to play, but I got to see what a championship team is made of. Staying [at Alabama] is definitely a choice. Some quarterbacks [who transfer] make a decision based on personal preference, and that’s fine. For me, I kind of just did it based on what’s best for the team and myself, too.”
Saban admires not only Jones sticking with ‘Bama, but enjoys seeing him reap the benefits of the maturity he showed while being a benchwarmer.
“We’ve obviously had a tremendous amount of respect for Mac in terms of how he viewed his development as a player,” Saban said. “He never was discouraged or ever talked about leaving. I think he had a different mentality of, ‘I’ve got to work hard to try and earn a spot here.’ He improved pretty dramatically and used the opportunity to play behind good players to actually enhance his development.
“He sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua. He had a chance to see their example so he could see it done correctly and emulate that.”
Gordon, a bankruptcy lawyer and a former ATP Tour tennis player (he won the NAIA singles/doubles national titles in his only season at Flagler College), highly endorsed Mac going to ‘Bama for one simple reason: “You’re the scout-team quarterback and going to be throwing against a defense with a bunch of future NFL players. You’re going to get better.”
Success after Tua
There’s no question Jones is the beneficiary of a ‘Bama offense typically surrounded by future NFL talent, including receivers DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle (before he sustained a season-ending injury) and John Metchie III, a trio that has combined for 20 TD receptions.
Along with a powerful running game led by Najee Harris, the Tide is averaging 48.5 points (tops among Power 5 schools) and 535.6 yards total offense (second among Power 5s behind Ole Miss). But without Jones’ evolution as a quarterback – including the devastating 48-45 setback to Auburn last year when he threw two pick-6s – ‘Bama wouldn’t be looking as dominant offensively as it has at any point during the Saban dynasty.
In many ways, Jones has been emboldened by the skeptics. Even those once part of his inner circle, some who doubted he could get to this point, marvel at his progress. That list includes longtime Bolles coach Wayne Belger, who was Rogers’ assistant for his entire career and took over as head coach for two years after Jones left for college.
“I think Mac has surprised us all with how well he’s done, especially this year,” Belger said from his home in North Carolina, where he’s now retired. “He was a good high school player, but to be in the running for the Heisman, I wouldn’t have thought it. Everybody wants to say he has great talent around him, but he’s made some unbelievable, big-time throws.
“If anybody said, ‘Yeah, I knew he would be in the Heisman race,’ they’re telling a lie. Nobody saw that. I thought if ‘Bama ever needed him to play, he’d come in and not hurt you. I knew he could throw the ball, but I didn’t know if he could take the punishment. He’s pretty mentally tough. I’m in awe of what he’s doing.”
Adding to Jones’ impressive junior year is the production and efficiency of the offense hasn’t diminished the past four games without Waddle. He suffered a season-ending injury on the opening kickoff against Tennessee, just one week after catching a 90-yard TD pass to give ‘Bama a 27-24 lead over Georgia (the Tide won 41-24).
In the last four Waddle-less games, the Jones-led offense has put up 48, 41, 63 and 42 points, leading by an average of 31.8 points entering the fourth quarter.
“I think coach Saban said it best about Waddle, it’s like losing Allen Iverson,” said Jones. “Waddle is explosive, fun-to-watch guy and puts up points on the board when he gets the ball. When you lose a security blanket like that, it’s hard, but you have to figure out ways to adjust. At first, it was a little bumpy. Obviously, losing him is not easy.”
Somehow, as the ‘Bama defense has made strides of its own the past month, Jones continues to demonstrate that an offense without Waddle or Tagovailoa can still operate in high gear.
Entering the Tide’s final regular-season game Saturday against LSU, Jones still has a chance to surpass Tua’s single-season record of 3,966 passing yards (2018), providing ‘Bama can reach the CFP championship game and he averages 311 yards per outing. Making that possible feat more amazing is Jones would have to accomplish it in three less games.
Admiring Gator QBs
There was never much doubt about Jones’ sports destiny. He’s been playing quarterback since his competitive sports debut at age 5 with the Bears of the Creekside Athletic Association, then on to the Mandarin Tigers where he led his team to a couple city championships.
Those games were played at TIAA Bank Field, usually the day after the Florida-Georgia game. Jones’ Tigers were on a pretty good run right when the Gators were at a peak during the Tim Tebow years.
“Playing quarterback at the Jaguars’ stadium, I always acted like I was Tim Tebow,” said Jones.
Jones began watching Tebow intently when Gordon often took Mac and his friends to games at Nease High, where Tebow’s football stardom was launched. As Tebow went on to have success at Florida and won a Heisman Trophy, an impressionable Jones became more enamored with how the quarterback carried himself on and off the field.
“We’d go out and watch this great high school player, then you’re watching him make all these great plays at Florida, it was all so exciting,” said Jones. “I really loved how he played and how competitive he was. It seemed like he would put his body on the line for his team running. What really got me was the off-the-field stuff he did. You look back on it, what he was then and is now, he’s easy to admire.”
But Tebow isn’t the only Florida quarterback that has caught Jones’ attention. When watching film against future ‘Bama opponents last year, he couldn’t help but notice how Trask came out of nowhere after taking over for an injured Feleipe Franks.
One year later, Trask is putting up gargantuan numbers with the Gators, a collegiate path not all that different from Jones.
“Obviously, his story is a great one and we have a similar story [in college],” said Jones. “We kind of both weren’t starters right away and we didn’t complain. It seems like both of us just worked hard and, eventually, we got our chance. He seems like a great guy.
“I don’t know [Trask] personally, but I sent him a message last year on Instagram after watching him on film of our next opponent. I’m watching him make all these plays and he looks really good back there. He kind of does everything right. His feet are really good, he has a strong arm and makes all the right reads. I just love watching him.”
Jones, too, has done everything right. In addition to his ascension up the ‘Bama depth chart – where he remains ahead of five-star prospect Bryce Young and four-star Paul Tyson, the great-grandson of coaching legend Bear Bryant – he graduated last December with a 4.0 GPA in business communications and is now pursuing a masters in sports management.
Everything Jones wanted out of his ‘Bama career is now in front of him, particularly the chance to quarterback his team to a championship, starting likely against Florida and Trask in the SEC title game (Dec. 19) and possibly the biggest prize in the College Football Playoff.
Holly, also a lawyer and former college tennis player at Mercer, is grateful that her 22-year-old son persevered in circumstances that might have compelled other quarterbacks to find a more convenient path.
“Mac’s personal journey has been different from so many others,” said Holly. “He’s overcome so much, including the COVID scare. Alabama is a super-competitive situation and we’re proud of him for hanging in there.”
It’s possible Michael McCorkle Jones – the middle name is Holly’s maiden name, so the family always called him Mac – could become the first Alabama quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy. Ironically, the 2015 Heisman recipient from the Tide was Yulee High running back Derrick Henry, also the last area player before Jones to sign with ‘Bama.
But Jones has little interest in talking about individual awards or his future, including any discussion about whether he will leave early for the NFL or return for his last season of eligibility.
“I can’t really answer that for you,” he said.
All that matters is Mac Jones has answered any skeptics by how he’s performed on the field. How fitting it’d be if the Jacksonville kid who wanted to be like Tebow led his team to an SEC/national championship and won a Heisman.
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