With Alabama starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa out for the rest of the season because of a hip injury, all eyes will again turn to backup Mac Jones.
Jones, who played for a game and a half earlier in the season when Tagovailoa hurt his ankle midway through a game against Tennessee, will step up to start again Saturday against Western Carolina. Tagovailoa was injured again on Nov. 16, when he was brought down by two defenders while rolling to his left on a third-down play. Tests revealed he dislocated his hip, broke his nose and was concussed on the play, while sources confirmed to ESPN he also suffered a posterior wall fracture.
So, how will Jones fare? Alabama coach Nick Saban on Wednesday said he had stressed to Jones his role had changed with Tagovailoa out for the season and he had to be “in command” now.
“‘You’re not a sparring partner anymore,'” Saban recalled of his conversation with Jones during Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “‘You’re the lead dog, so you’ve got to be in control of what you’re doing and have positive body language, not only in terms of what you do but in how you affect other people.'”
Here are a few other things to know about the redshirt sophomore quarterback:
Jones’ performances this season
Mac Jones fills in for Tua Tagovailoa nicely with three touchdown passes, two of those to Jerry Jeudy in Alabama’s blowout victory over Arkansas.
(Oct. 19) Unexpected entrance against Tennessee: Jones, a career backup, came into the game after Tagovailoa left in the second quarter because of an ankle injury. As Jones worked his way through some early-game jitters, throwing off his back foot and short-arming some of his first pass attempts, there was nothing but the unknown to dwell upon. He would settle in, completing 6 of 11 passes for 72 yards, as Alabama leaned more on its running game and defense to beat rival Tennessee 35-13. The next morning, Tagovailoa went under the knife for tightrope surgery to repair a high-ankle sprain and missed the Tide’s next game against Arkansas.
(Oct. 26) In his first career start, Jones takes on Arkansas: Jones passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns filling in for an injured Tagovailoa and the then-top-ranked Crimson Tide coasted to a 48-7 victory. “I felt really prepared and we were prepared,” Jones said. “It’s football and I’ve been playing since I was 5 and everybody around me has been playing since they were 5. So no big deal.”
(Nov. 16) Tua carted off, Jones steps in: Jones was called in before for Tagovailoa, but this was different. Tagovailoa went 14 of 18 for 256 yards and two touchdown passes against Mississippi State, giving him 31 TD passes on the season, before suffering his season-ending injury. He was replaced by Jones, who went 7 for 11 for 94 yards and tried to keep the team’s emotions in check as the Tide were shocked to see their star QB carted off the field with a bloody nose and dislocated hip. Said Saban after the game: “We told Mac to warm up and we were going to go 2-minute before the half. Tua wanted to play in the game and so I don’t really make a lot of decisions worrying if a guy is going to get hurt.”
Time to get to know Mac Jones
Before coming into that Tennessee game, the most interesting note about the redshirt sophomore from Florida was he once coached a sorority flag-football team to a championship; now, he’s the starter at Alabama and perhaps the most important Plan B in college football.
It’s good news Jones is on Alabama’s campus at all. The two quarterbacks behind him on the depth chart have famous relatives — Taulia Tagovailoa is the younger brother of Tua, and Paul Tyson is the great-grandson of Paul “Bear” Bryant — but they are nonetheless true freshmen with exactly one pass attempt between them. You wouldn’t be wrong to take one look at Jones and wonder: In the age of the transfer portal, how many other former four-star quarterbacks would be willing to sit and wait their turn?
“So many places now don’t have quality backups, especially at the major places, because people assume since you’re not the starter you should take your ball and go home,” FAU coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin told ESPN.
What made Jones so refreshing to recruit out of high school? According to Kiffin, the QB was bright and funny, and never once made a big deal about starting right away. Kiffin thinks about the absurdity of it. Alabama once had the commitment of Georgia star quarterback Jake Fromm and, when Fromm decommitted, it opened the door for Tagovailoa. A month later, Jones gave his pledge, as well, and suddenly the Tide were flush with quarterbacks. This was at a time when Alabama already had a QB on his way to becoming the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker at Georgia in 1980. His name was Jalen Hurts.
“I’ve always thought of it as pretty cool that, in one calendar year, we had the three of them: Tua and Jalen — two guys who are probably going to the Heisman ceremony — and Mac,” Kiffin said. “Obviously the other two got more publicity being the starter, but I always thought it said a lot about Mac.
“It says a lot that both came — that Tua would first come to follow Jalen, and then, knowing Tua was committed, Mac would come also. It speaks to how competitive those two are when they’d come when everyone else was saying, ‘Oh, don’t go there.'”
Jones is a competitor
Asked for his scouting report of Jones, Kiffin said: “Game manager in a good way. Some people say that in a bad way. When I say game manager, I mean a guy who’s really sharp, can control everything, can get things right, protections right. That’s what I felt like visiting and recruiting Jake was like, and when we got to Mac, I felt Mac was very similar to that — all about football, just obsessed with the position and on top of that a really good player.”
We haven’t seen enough of Jones to know if the assessment is accurate. He redshirted his first season when Hurts and Tagovailoa were battling behind the scenes. He went on to win MVP of Alabama’s spring game as a redshirt freshman only to trade sitting behind Hurts and Tagovailoa. Most of his 22 appearances have been in mop-up duty. He has taken 157 snaps and attempted only 45 passes, 25 of which he has completed, for 360 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Now, it is really Jones’ time to show what he has learned waiting behind two Heisman Trophy candidates.
ESPN reporters Alex Scarborough and Mark Schlabach contributed to this report.