Little Mac No More

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They call him “Joker.”

It’s a nickname that’s been around for a while considering that former reserve offensive lineman Richie Petitbon is believed to have come up with it.

“He like cackles a little,” redshirt junior tight end Miller Forristall said about quarterback Mac Jones. “Less of a laugh and more of a high-pitched cackle, and that’s kind of where it came from.”

But Forrsitall wasn’t laughing when he gave his assessment of the redshirt sophomore who will make his first career start when Alabama hosts Arkansas for homecoming on Saturday night (6 p.m. CT, ESPN).

“I think a lot of people underestimate Mac Jones,” he said. “I don’t think they know how good he’s gonna be or how good he is. That’s something where it’s always been that, ‘What’s going to happen after Tua?’

“Mac Jones is really good.”

Even though he’s played in 18 games, most fans only know the product of The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., as the guy who mops up for Tua Tagovailoa and for being named the MVP of Alabama’s spring A-Day game last year.

Overall, he’s attempted 45 career passes, completing 25 (55.6 percent), for 360 yards and two touchdowns, plus one interception. His career passer-efficiency rating is 133.0.

After replacing Tagovailoa (ankle) during the second quarter against Tennessee, he went 6-of-11 for 72 yards and helped lead a touchdown drive that was aided by a timely roughing-the-passer call.

Jones didn’t have a touchdown pass, as Alabama went to Slade Bolden in the wildcat formation for a 6-yard scoring throw to Forristall, but he also didn’t turn the ball over.

“He didn’t do anything that really hurt us in the game,” Nick Saban said. “I think that he had two balls that were dropped, that were critical situations in the game. The one play that he scrambled on third down where he could have thrown the ball, I would assume that if you asked him he’d say, I wish I would have thrown the ball,’ because we would have made a first down and the guy was open.

“All In all, I thought he handled the situation really well. It’s a difficult circumstance to get thrown into. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Mac. With a week of preparation, I think he’ll do a lot better in this game.”

Even though Alabama didn’t attempt a pass in the fourth quarter, the quarterback change didn’t appear to alter the play-calling too much with Jones — at least initially. Granted, the Crimson Tide ran more as the game progressed, but the situation dictated some of that along with going with what was working. Najee Harris, who had another 100-yard game, and the offensive line got into a groove.

Besides, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian obviously didn’t try and put more pressure on the young quarterback’s shoulders.

“With Mac it’s not a matter of arm talent or ability, it’s staying focused and being able to execute on a consistent basis and make good choices and decisions and not think about it too much and just take what the defense gives,” Saban said. “When he’s done that he’s been very, very effective and that’s what we’ve worked with him on throughout the season. And for the most part he’s done a pretty good job of that.

While Alabama is trying to play it up as Jones is just another player stepping up for an injured starter, he’s obviously not. Tagovailoa was considered the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy before the injury, and he still could win the award if he can come back and lead a win against LSU in two weeks.

Two offensive adjustments that his teammates will have to make in his absence this week stem from Jones being right-handed while Tagovailoa is a southpaw.

For the receivers it means a different spin, plus junior Alex Leatherwood will now be guarding the blind side at left tackle.

The real adjustment, though, is in timing and familiarity. Jones is in his third year with the Crimson Tide, but this will be his first time solely running the first-team offense through this week’s practices.

The other part, team-wise, is to make sure everyone plays with more of sense of urgency, only without feeling like they have to do things out of the ordinary for the Crimson Tide to win. That goes for the defense, which is still coming together with four freshmen in the front seven, as well.

“If you go out there and try to be your best, that should never cross your mind whether Tua is healthy,” senior safety Jared Mayden. “It can be ‘Tua is healthy so I can relax so it’s OK for me to give up a touchdown because the offense is going to go score.’ You can’t think like that.

“It’s unfortunate Tua went down but if you’re really a competitor and you really want to be in this defense, no matter who is playing, you better be trying to do your best.”

Of course, even though Jones was a consensus four-star prospect, rated the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the country by Rivals, No. 12 by 247Composite and No. 17 by both 247Sports and ESPN in 2017, he’ll be surrounded by a lot of talent against the Razorbacks and throwing to arguably the best group of wide receivers in college football.

Plan B, is the other Tagovailoa, Tua’s younger brother Taulia. The true freshman who has played in two games and attempted one pass, will back up Jones.

“He’s got a lot of talent,” Saban said. “We’ve tried to get him some reps throughout the course of the year in case this happened. So it’s going to be really important that we do a good job of progressing him this week as well.”

Regardless, Alabama has a game to play, and if nothing else Jones has a golden opportunity to take a step toward being the player who eventually replaces Tua Tagovailoa.

“He can throw the crap out of the ball,” Forristall said. “It’s not like our playbook gets limited or we stop attacking down the field. We got to roll just the same as we always do.”

Besides, as the tight end pointed out: “We’ve done well historically with backup quarterbacks.”