Former Oklahoma State quarterback Daxx Garman pushed a scrawny middle-schooler in front of Joe Dickinson and told the quarterback instructor to watch.
“This is the next big-time guy,” he informed Dickinson, an instructor at DeBartolo Sports Academy, who trained Garman as well as a variety of NFL quarterbacks including Troy Aikman, Matt Barkley, J.P. Losman and Patrick Ramsey among others.
“It was this little scrawny tennis player looking guy,” Dickinson recalled. “He was really young. Daxx said, ‘Just watch him throw.’ He could naturally move with a lot of the same movements as a tennis player, too. He had that high release, balance, all that stuff. And at a young age, you could see if he didn’t mess it up he could have the chance to be a talented passer.”
That little kid was Mac Jones. He’s grown up a bit since then.
Now in his third year at Alabama, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback will be called on to lead the Crimson Tide in the absence of Tua Tagovailoa.
Those who haven’t seen much of Jones question whether he’ll come close to reaching the prolific heights of his Heisman-caliber predecessor. After Tagovailoa dislocated his hip last week, the narrative across the nation was that the Crimson Tide’s playoff chances went down with him.
However, those more familiar with Jones tell a different story. While Alabama isn’t necessarily expecting the right-hander to serve as a like-for-like replacement for Tagovailoa, the belief amongst the Crimson Tide’s locker room is that things won’t change too much moving forward.
Nick Saban remained adamant this week that he wouldn’t make drastic alterations to his team’s high-flying attack with Jones behind center. Instead, the head coach pointed out the redshirt sophomore’s lone start against Arkansas — a 48-7 victory in which Jones completed 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns — as evidence of his quarterbacking ability.
“He’s smart. He understands the offense,” Saban said. “He’s made a lot of improvement throughout the course of the year. We have a lot of confidence in Mac, and I think (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has) done a really good job of helping him develop throughout the year. We’re not changing what we do. Mac is a very capable guy. He’s a smart guy, and we have a lot of confidence in what he can do and what he will do.”
So what exactly is Alabama getting in Jones? Probably more than you think.
As Dickinson pointed out, Jones has a bit of a tennis background. His father played tennis for Florida State, while his mother played at Mercer. Jones also has an older sister who played tennis at the College of Charleston and an older brother who played soccer at Mercer. That same athleticism was passed down to the family’s youngest child as well.
Jones played his high school football at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., under head coach Corky Rogers, who utilized a Wing-T offense that calls for his quarterbacks to be relatively mobile. While Jones isn’t necessarily known for his speed, he has shown nice escapability in the pocket as well as the ability to get downfield when needed.
“He’s got very quick fast-twitch QB movements,” said Ryan Walker, a quarterback instructor at DeBartolo Sports Academy who has trained Jones since high school and still works with him in the offseason. “As far as if a guy is coming at him, he’s good at making that one subtle movement right or left to make a guy miss. That’s where I think you see some of his tennis skills come into play. His dad was a tennis instructor, so those lateral movements, I can see how they translated into his game. It makes him great with his pocket movement.”
Before Jalen Hurts and Tagovailoa brought a sense of dynamism to Alabama’s offense, Crimson Tide quarterbacks were typically typecast as “game-managers” — a phrase that generally brought a negative connotation of an unathletic passer whose job mainly consisted of short, safe passes and handoffs to the running back.
While he isn’t a dual-threat quarterback, Jones far exceeds the “game manager” title and likely won’t be used that way by Alabama. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has started Jones off slowly in each of his last two outings but has allowed the offense to open up once his quarterback established comfort.
During last week’s game against Mississippi State, Jones’ first throw came on a simple pass to the flats where he hit Jerry Jeudy for a 10-yard gain. Next was a screen to Najee Harris for 9 yards. The two easy passes allowed him to get into a rhythm before hitting Henry Ruggs III for 26 yards and DeVonta Smith for 18 yards on his next two throws.
An even better example of this came during the quarterback’s start against Arkansas. During that game, Sarkisian started Jones out with two straight shovel passes followed by a quick play-action pass and a screen. The quarterback’s first big throw came on Alabama’s second possession as he rolled out to his right to find Ruggs for a 14-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. Jones was allowed to take more and more chances from there, culminating with a 40-yard touchdown to Jeudy on his final pass of the evening.
“A lot of people overlook him because of who he was behind,” Smith said, “but I feel the same way about Mac as I feel about Tua.”
Jones is sometimes called ‘Baby Brady’ by his Alabama teammates, a reference to New England quarterback Tom Brady, who he established a connection with after the two were introduced by former Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. However, Walker believes a better comparison might be Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“He has that NFL style body,” Walker said. “He can be deceivingly athletic at times, but he’s going to be very efficient with it.
“I guess I would compare how Minnesota has been running their offense to how Mac could work at Alabama. Mac could be under center a little more. But if you notice if the run game’s working, Mac is OK with it. If you’ve got to open up and throw it a lot, of course, he can do that. It’s kind of like what Kirk’s been doing with the Vikings.”
The other undervalued trait Jones brings to the table is his confidence. That’s been obvious since the former four-star recruit flipped from Kentucky to Alabama in the same class as Tagovailoa despite the Crimson Tide already having Hurts as its starter.
“The one thing about Mac is he’s a competitor,” Walker said. “Obviously he got a lot of heat when he broke his commitment with Kentucky where he could have possibly walked in and been the starting quarterback right away. The one comment he made about that was, ‘When Alabama and Nick Saban calls, you pick up the phone.’ He just wants to compete.”
Jones hasn’t been afraid to flash his bravado ever since stepping on campus. Earlier this week, safety Jared Mayden told a story of the quarterback’s freshman days on the practice squad which featured a bold back-and-forth between Jones and Saban.
“He was throwing bombs and Coach Saban said ‘stop’ — I think he was throwing it to Tyrell Shavers — and (Saban said): ‘Man, stop throwing it to him all the time.’ And (Jones) was like, ‘Well, tell your defense to stop it.’
“Like, for a quarterback to have that type of charisma about himself, you know I’ll be behind him all the time.”
That reminds Dickinson of another quarterback he used to work with.
“When I was a young coach, I was the scout team coach at Oklahoma and Troy Aikman was my scout-team quarterback,” he recalled. “Troy Aikman didn’t believe in throwing to all those circled guys either. He had the same type of confidence like that… I guess you’ve got to have a little bit of that in you, and it ended up pretty good for that Aikman guy.”
The first game of the Mac Jones era begins Saturday as No. 5 Alabama hosts FCS foe Western Carolina at 11 a.m. CT in what will be the final game inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium this season. However, the quarterback’s biggest test will come the following week as the Crimson Tide travels to No. 15 Auburn for the Iron Bowl. The spotlight is sure to be on Jones then as the matchup will likely decide whether or not the College Football Playoff committee still views Alabama as a legitimate contender without Tagovailoa.
Dickinson’s advice to them: Just watch.
“I’m very excited to see what he does,” Dickinson said. “I think Mac is a special player, but he has to show us. Right or wrong, until people do it, everybody’s wondering what you are. Mack’s got his opportunity to prove it now, and I think he will.”