TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was during a practice two years ago.
Mac Jones was the scout-team quarterback and he was going deep, over and over again, to wide receiver Tyrell Shavers. It got to the point that Nick Saban grew frustrated because there were other things he wanted the defense to work on, and told his quarterback to stop.
According to senior safety Jared Mayden, Jones’ response was simple: “Well, tell your defense to stop it.”
"There's not too many people that go back and forth with Coach Saban,” Mayden said. “For a quarterback to have that type of charisma about himself, you know I'll be behind him all the time."
While so much of the attention over the past few days has been on Tau Tagovailoa, and understandably so considering the severity of his hip injury and what his future may entrail following surgery, little has focused on the player replacing him — yet.
When No. 5 Alabama hosts Western Carolina on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN), Jones won’t just be stepping in for last year’s the Heisman Trophy runner-up, but will key the Crimson Tide’s playoff chances.
At least, that’s outside the Mal Moore Athletic Complex. Inside is the exact opposite. Jones has become the focal point of the game plan and offense, just like Tagovailoa was. It’s his turn.
“Be a leader, be in command,” Saban said was his message to his new starting quarterback. “You’re not a sparring partner anymore. 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.”
Jones has made a start, of course, and had one of the best debuts in Crimson Tide history. With Tagovailoa sidelined by a high-ankle sprain, the redshirt sophomore guided a 48-7 victory over Arkansas on Oct. 26 and was 18-for-22 (81.8 percent), 235 yards, with three touchdowns and no turnovers.
But that was against a struggling team that has since fired its head coach. Next week Alabama (9-1) has to visit No. 15 Auburn, Jordan-Hare Stadium is considered one of the toughest venues in college football during a regular Saturday, but goes to extreme levels against the rival Crimson Tide.
“We’re not changing what we do,” Saban said. “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.”
Ten games into a season is no time for an offense to try and re-invent itself, but there will be some tweaks to cater to Jones’ strengths. Every quarterback has players he feels more and less comfortable executing.
The changes won’t be as extreme as being a right-handed quarterback while Tagovailoa was a rare southpaw, plus the game plan to face specific opposition comes into play as well. Alabama will probably go pretty vanilla against Western Carolina, so Auburn won’t know what to expect, plus against the Razorbacks the offense was a little more run-oriented and simplified for a quarterback making his first start.
At least Jones will have a game to work through some things before facing Kevin Steele’s impressive defense.
“He understands the offense in and out, he understands his reads,” junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. said. “Whenever we develop the game plan, with Tua or with him, whenever we go through film and whatnot, Mac Jones will get a question on the exact same thing. He’s a really, really smart player.”
The one thing he isn’t, though, is Tagovailoa — although no one is, even statistically. We’ll use third-down passing as an example.
Overall, Tagovailoa was 180-for-252 (71.4 percent) for 2,840 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions before suffering his season-ending hip injury at Mississippi State. His passer rating was 206.9, on pace to break the NCAA single-season record he set last year (199.4).
This season Tagovailoa was 37-for-52 (71.2 percent) for 564 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception on third downs. It adds up to a passer-efficiency rating of 202.8
Normally, a quarterback’s rating goes significantly down, especially when one starts talking third-and-long. Tagovailia’s actually went up. On third-and-6 and longer he’s 23-for-30 (76.7) for 438 yard with seven touchdowns and the one pick. His rating: 269.6.
It should also be noted that Tagovailoa was only sacked twice in that circumstance this season.
Overall, Jones is 50-for-78 (64.1 percent), 689 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, for a 156.9 rating. On third downs he’s a little more typical of even top-notch quarterbacks: 12-for-16 (75.0) for 107 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. His rating 118.7.
In third-and-6 or more, he’s 10 for 12 (83.3) for 80, and a 122.7 rating.
The big difference is that Tagovailoa usually got the first down. The average gain off his completions in that situation was 14.6 yards. For Jones it’s 6.7.
However, something to note is that Tagovailoa’s favorite targets on third downs were Jerry Jeudy (15-for-19, 224 yards) and DeVonta Smith (10-for-11, 160 yards). In the seven games Jones has completed a pass this season he’s 3-for-3 to Jeudy and 2-for-2 to both Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle.
Minus Arkansas, most of his plays have involved the second- and third-team players.
"I've seen Mac Jones grow since he's been here, even from scout-team days,” Mayden said. “Mac Jones is developing and I really have the most confidence in Mac Jones. I feel like the team has the most confidence in Mac Jones.
“I tell him all the time, 'I believe in you. When it's your time, you're going to shine. You will be a good quarterback, a great quarterback.' Whatever the team needs of Mac Jones, he'll go out there and do from the mindset and determination that he brings forward when he's in the locker room, when he's in meetings, even when he's on the field.”
That confidence factor has been growing for three years.
When Jones made the “tell your defense to stop it” comment,” Saban might have been reminded of another quarterback who made a pretty big mark at Alabama, AJ McCarron.
Back when he was on the scout team in 2009, the Crimson Tide defense had three All-Americans with Javier Arenas, Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain, along with future first-round draft picks Mark Barron, Marcel Dareus, Kareem Jackson, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. Yet the quarterback claimed that he more than gave them everything they could handle during practices.
“Ask Coach Saban, we were killing the ’09 defense on scout team,” McCarron said during his senior season.
“I do remember it that way,” Saban confirmed, as did Kevin Norwood, who was one of his scout-team receivers: “We were just throwing all over them. We were giving them good looks.”
This isn’t to say that Jones will turn into McCarron and be as successful. But there are some parallels including both wearing No. 10 and McCarron was initially underrated as well.
Incidentally, his career passing rating with the Crimson Tide was 162.5, very close to what Jones has posted so far.
"A lot of people overlook him because of who he was behind, but I feel the same way about Mac as I feel about Tua,” junior wide receiver DeVonta Smith said.
"Just watch the game and see for yourself."