Everyone seemed to tell Mac Jones and his family that Mac wouldn't play at Alabama. But they had a plan. This is why Mac waited and how he's quickly become a Heisman favorite.
Holly Jones wanted to throw up.
Taped to the door of her son’s freshman year dorm were a bevy of hater tweets with a common theme: You’re not good enough. Mom wanted to rip the slander off the door. But she never mentioned it to her son. She’s not sure if Mac ever meant for her to see his internalized motivation, words he’d taped to the door as a reminder.
Mac ranked as the No. 399 overall prospect in the 2017 class, per the 247Sports Composite. That placed him 24th of 26 non-specialist Alabama signees during the 2017 cycle. He was an afterthought in a No. 1 class that included Tua Tagovailoa and seven other five-stars.
Questions inevitability filtered in from family and friends about Mac’s choice. Each hit the same note: “You don’t really think he’s going to get a chance to play there, do you?”
They did think he’d get that opportunity. It’s just nobody believed their plan.
“I knew I wasn’t good enough to play,” Mac told 247Sports. “You either complain or you figure out and figure out how to get better. … I knew eventually I’d get my chance and to be ready for that chance.”
Four years later, Mac will soon revisit the inflection point of his career. The No. 1 Crimson Tide will host Kentucky, the school that held his commitment before he flipped to Alabama, on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network). It’s the latest opportunity for Mac to build on his 2020 Heisman push.
Six games into his redshirt junior campaign, Mac has thrown for 2,196 yards and 16 touchdowns against just two interceptions while completing 78.5 percent of his passes and averaging 12.4 yards per attempt. Jones would shatter FBS records in both latter categories if those stats were stretched out over an entire season.
Mac arrived in a quarterback room led by SEC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts. Jones sat behind Tagovailoa, a future top 5 pick, for two years. Then Tua’s brother, four-star Taulia Tagovailoa, came to campus. This offseason brought Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall player in the 2020 Top247, to the forefront of the conversation.
It’s always been any quarterback but Mac Jones.
"This Was His Shot To Prove He Belonged"
Let’s start with the name that hung over the most of Mac’s career: Tua.
“It was always Tua and Jalen. Jalen and Tua,” Mac’s father, Gordon, said. “You know there’s one other scholarship quarterback out here? Every once in a while, throw him a bone.” There were fleeting moments like that for the family. Said Mac: “There were definitely days like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I ever going to play here?”
It’s not as if Mac committed unaware of the Tua-sized hurdle that’d be in front of him. Holly’s sister lives in Hawaii and tales of Tua’s high school exploits were relayed well before Mac earned an Alabama offer. Mac and his family just never really looked at Tua as competition.
“I know people think it’s crazy, but we thought it was two separate things,” Holly said. “We felt like it wasn’t an issue.”
One was ready to play immediately. The other was not.
Mac’s friend and high school teammate Jack Lundgren met Mac the summer before eighth grade. Lundgren has pictures where Mac “looks like he’s 11” and he estimates Mac stood 5-foot-6, 110 pounds at time. Later, Gordon took his 15-year-old son to a child endocrinologist to ask why Mac’s physical development seemed to lag behind other kids his age.
The doctor wasn’t concerned. He projected Mac would hit his eventual height – 6-foot-3 – but said it’d come slowly: “Your son is 15 but his body is 13. He’ll grow.”
Despite his lack of stature, Jones had projectable traits. Lane Kiffin, his Alabama recruiter, remembers thinking he needed to project with Mac’s frame. What he couldn’t find in many passers was Jones’ accuracy and football acumen.
Mac never played to his size. Lundgren will never forget Mac’s first high school appearance against rival William M. Raines High School. Bolles’ starter got hurt, which meant Mac would face a defense that included Solomon Kindley (Dolphins), Michael Pinckney (Patriots) and JaQuan Bailey (Iowa State’s all-time sack leader). Lundgren said Mac looked like a “tiny little twig.” He got crushed time and time again in a 34-33 loss. Lundgren also watched his friend get up over and over, looking to the sideline for the next play.
“He wanted to win,” Lundgren said. “He didn’t care what happened (to his body). This was his shot to prove he belonged.”
That opportunity came this offseason with Tua’s departure to the NFL. Mac performed well against Auburn (335 yards) and Michigan (327 yards) to end last year after Tua suffered a season-ending hip injury, but the starting job was hardly secure.
Another Tua-like figure had entered the picture: Bryce Young.
“He came in and was the No. 1 player or whatever,” Jones said. “I know that happens every year. I always just relate it back to the Tua situation. I knew there would be competition along the way.”
Mac spent part of the coronavirus-impacted offseason at home. Holly watched Mac organize 42 gamebooks worth of data and notes from his time at Alabama, tabbing them and creating a bookcase dedicated to film study. He and Lundgren worked out six days a week in Mac’s backyard. The family bought a weight set to put on the deck. The pair would lift, run passing drills and finish the workout sprinting around the family’s dock. Mac put on nine pounds. He gained so much weight throughout his career that Kiffin, who spoke to Mac before Alabama’s matchup with Ole Miss earlier this year, didn’t realize how much Mac’s body changed: “He’s gotten A LOT bigger.”
When Mac went back to school, Holly remembers visiting for a weekend and showing up Sunday to spend time with her son. She asked Mac’s girlfriend, Sophie, where Mac had been all morning. He'd woken up at 7 a.m. to study in Alabama’s facility by himself.
Mac never spoke of any frustrations that came with his long wait to start or the fact every other QB seemed to be mentioned but him. But Gordon and Holly knew: “I think it was unspoken,” Holly said.
Given an opportunity to finally see the field, Holly saw her son again embrace the moment.
“He just fully committed to dedicating his life 100 percent on his chance,” Holly said. “With that change came the disappearance of any frustration, because he turned the frustration into a drive. … Once he had the ability to be a starter, he drove it all into his passion.”
From Model To Alabama's Recruiting Crosshairs
While even Gordon can admit a Joe Burrow-like ascendance was unexpected for Mac, he is equipped to help his son deal with the now. A former professional tennis player who’s played in the French Open and Wimbledon, the psychology of sports remains a subject of great interest for Gordon. He told his son recently: Focus on the meatball.
Gordon believes the toughest job is a fighter pilot attempting to land on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the storm. Come in too high and you must circle back, wasting precious fuel. Come in too low and you crash into the bottom of the ship. Pilots focus on the meatball – the lights on the deck that dictate their path.
“Football is the same way,” Gordon said. “Focus on the meatball, the next play and next game. That’s part of the Saban process as well.’
Conversations of that nature have long dotted Gordon and Mac’s relationship. It’s a family thing. In addition to Gordon, Holly played tennis at Mercer. Mac’s brother, Will, played soccer at Mercer and his sister, Sarah Jane, played tennis at the College of Charleston.
Mac could’ve played pretty much anything. He never really focused on tennis, but Gordon remembers Mac watching Roger Federer one afternoon and a few days later emerging from his room with an “incredible” forehand. Sarah Jane even asked her dad: “How is it he does that?” Gordon had to respond: “I don’t know.” On the soccer field, Mac was so dominant at a young age that Holly said other parents on the team asked her if he could play another sport for a season – he was scoring all the goals.
No sport captured Mac’s attention like football. Holly signed him up at age four. When the season ended, Holly found Mac wallowing in the downstairs guest room. He seemed sick, lounging in front of the TV watching football all weekend. When Holly asked what was wrong, Mac bemoaned: “Football season is over. You have to sign me up for another team right now!”
Holly used to find scribbled route trees on pieces of paper scattered across Mac’s room. An eight-year-old Mac went to the office with Holly to use the printer so he could create play sheets for his coaches and copies for his wristband. Salt and pepper shakers became mechanisms to explain route concepts.
Mac actually had a promising modeling career – he stumbled into it by chance after attending a beauty camp with his sister as Holly needed a last-minute babysitting substitute for a four-year-old Mac – and appeared in ads for things like Party City. The agency wanted to keep Mac on when he got older. He only had eyes for football.
“He was absolutely obsessed,” Holly said.
No wonder that kid turned into a stay-the-course, competitive football junkie. Where else would he play but Alabama?
Mac would’ve been happy at Kentucky. He insists on that even today. Yet his recruitment shifted when he received a call from Alabama: “We’d like you to visit. Tomorrow.”
Mac and Holly departed that evening, picking up Gordon in Atlanta before arriving in Tuscaloosa at 3 a.m. on April 10. Mac had an ear infection but he threw anyway. Every few minutes a new coach walked by to watch, capped off by Kiffin. Then came a trip to Nick Saban’s office. National title rings glittering atop Saban’s desk, Gordon remembers the pitch: “You’re my type of quarterback. … You’ve got to gain some weight but looking at your dad you’ll get taller. … Do you think you’ll have five five-star linemen at Kentucky? … What are the receivers like over there? … Have any five-stars?”
Gordon, a bankruptcy trustee, and Holly, a former insurance defense attorney, always valued long-term planning. Yes, Tua would be there. But the family knew Mac would need at least a season or two to be physically prepared for the rigors of SEC football. Throwing passes against future NFL defenders on the scout team would only aid Mac in that path. No other school provided the same sort of developmental resources.
Mac couldn’t say no.
“It’s just part of being a family that believed in the process before we knew about the Saban process,” Gordon said.
Mac Waited For A Reason
Gordon remembers giving an interview shortly before Mac flipped his commitment from Kentucky to Alabama. One of the questions in regard to Mac’s Alabama interest went like this: “You know he’s not going to start, right?”
A little over five years later, Mac is giving his third interview of the day answering questions about his Heisman chances and his historic accuracy. The man nicknamed the “Joker” in Tuscaloosa is quick to laugh but is also rehearsed with his answers. He’s heard all the questions before.
Except one: How would you feel if you never played at Alabama?
Mac pauses when that question pops up. He’s won a national title, graduated in three years with a 4.0 GPA and met friends who will last a lifetime. And at first, a man raised to see the bigger picture admits there would’ve been a semblance of satisfaction: “To be mentored by Coach Saban and all the great coaches I’ve had here would already be enough for me to be really satisfied with my decision to come here.”
Then, as if his mind jerked him to the side mid -sentence, Mac adjusts: “Everyone wants to play and win a championship. … We want to get back to that.”
Hurts started that 2018 national title victory. Tua saved the day. Mac celebrated on the sidelines. He didn’t watch that confetti fall only to abandon his long-term plan. He wanted that 2nd-and-26 feeling for himself.
It’s something he always planned to wait for, a rarity in an age in which more than 50 percent of former Elite 11 quarterbacks transfer at least once in their career. As Saban puts it: “A lot of players look for opportunities elsewhere when they don’t get immediate, positive self-gratification.”
“He was one of those guys who was willing to work to develop,” Saban said.