The hit was something else.
Michigan’s defensive end Aidan Hutchinson – all 6-foot-5, 269 pounds of him – left his feet and crashed onto the chin and face mask of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Jones was on the ground 13-7 in the first half and was on the ground for a split second as he absorbed the penalty. Teammates ducked on the sidelines. A flag was thrown. It roughened the passers-by. Alabama recorded its first defeat, but what about Jones?
He had waited for this moment for more than three years, securing Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Tagovailoa sustained a hip injury at the end of the season and forced Jones into the starting line-up two games earlier. Against Michigan # 14 at the Citrus Bowl, which went into an off-season when the country’s best double-threat quarterback would join the program, it was a pivotal time for Jones to create a breakup – just not his breakup Soul leave his body.
But Jones reappeared as if nothing had happened. Indeed, he seemed to have discovered a little sharpness in himself, an aura of determination. A commemorative mark 150 was partially torn and hung on the shoulder of his shirt. Jones stared at the sideline eager for the next call, then ripped off the patch and got into position to take the snap. Inside, his teammates got angry.
Wideout Mac Hereford and offensive lineman Pierce Quick were stunned. Hereford said it feels like a movie, like an emotional climax, because it sums up who Jones is so perfectly and how long he’s waited to show who he is. Hereford said he and Quick looked at each other on the sidelines and said, “Oh my god, this guy’s a warrior.”
“It was like nothing stood in his way,” said Hereford, “because he had already had the toughest parts of his career.”
Not only did Jones lead the offensive to a touchdown on that drive, but made a statement with his play the rest of the way. The lanky Jacksonville, Florida kid, whom no one designated as Alabama’s starter, led the Crimson Tide to a pivotal 35:16 win over Michigan, throwing 327 yards and three touchdowns.
That hit and the way Jones responded to it told Hereford everything he needed to know about his quarterback. After wondering if Jones’s day would ever come, the time had finally come.
A confident Jones told reporters in Orlando that it was now his team. And who would argue differently after what they had just seen?
If this scene sounds familiar, it should. Because a year before Jones was leveled by Hutchinson in the Citrus Bowl, LSU’s Joe Burrow had a similarly punitive outbreak when he was demolished by the UCF in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl by Joey Connors. Knights linebacker Nate Evans stood triumphantly over an expanded burrow that was little more than an afterthought at the national level at the time – he’d thrown just 12 touchdowns and four interceptions during the regular season. But after that hit something broke up in Burrow as he led LSU to a 40:32 win, throwing 394 yards and four career touchdowns. In retrospect, it was the beginning of everything.
Burrow was selected # 1 in the NFL draft in May, but his history has consistently dominated college football. How he went from a mid-of-the-pack quarterback to a national champion one season and a Heisman Trophy winner the next couldn’t be easily discarded.
The moment he left LSU, the search was on. Who would be the next Joe Burrow?
At first sight the question was stupid. We hadn’t seen anything like Burrow in the sport’s 150-year history. His 60 touchdowns were a record. He also lunged for five more touchdowns and threw only six interceptions.
But that’s exactly how Burrow led coaches, players, and forecasters to believe it could happen again. The most obvious reason was the speed of Burrow’s rise, which gave hope to quarterbacks, who had been believed dead, that greatness was just around the corner.
Less obvious was the way Burrow was made. Because it wasn’t like Burrow had an ideal arm or otherworldly athletic gifts. Burrow certainly had a strong arm, but it wasn’t a howitzer. And he was quick, but only in the sense that he was quick enough to outrun a defender or linebacker. Rather, what divided Burrow was his decision-making. He processed information so quickly and almost always made the right reading.
And doesn’t every quarterback think they can improve? You can only improve your arm strength so much, and you can only get so much faster. But work hard enough – study, practice, pray – and you, too, can be like Joe Burrow.
Texas A & M’s Kellen Mond has been identified as someone who could make a burrow-esque jump. The same was true of Miami’s D’Eriq King, Notre Dame’s Ian Book, and others. It was such a phenomenon that ESPN’s Bill Connelly created what he called “The Burrow Index”.
But there was someone who few talked about in the summer, someone who quietly analyzed burrow cuts for clues and in the end came closest to last season’s Heisman winner. And as luck would have it, he was right in the back yard of the LSU. Tiger fans may be terrified of this, but the next Joe Burrow was an up and coming star at their most hated rival, Alabama.
Burrow might have shown up earlier if he hadn’t gone to the state of Ohio, where he was instantly overshadowed by a flurry of talented quarterbacks. At first it was J.T. Barrett. Then Barrett was injured and Cardale Jones took over. Then Barrett came back. And when Barrett finally left, it was Dwayne Haskins who won the starting job. At the beginning of his Redshirt junior season, Burrow gave in and moved to LSU.
Jones should empathize. Originally engaged in Kentucky, he could have been the Wildcats quarterback long ago if Nick Saban hadn’t arrived at Jacksonville’s Bolles School by helicopter one day. Coach Wayne Belger recalls that it was hard to hold the other students back when Saban landed. Saban offered Jones a scholarship and he accepted. Not only would Jones sign in the same class as Tagovailoa, but he would know that Hurts is a year ahead of him and is well on his way to becoming the first freshman since Herschel Walker to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
“He’s not afraid of the competition,” said Belger. “If he was afraid of the competition, he would have gone to Kentucky.”
So Jones waited for Hurts and then Tagovailoa, and he didn’t even flinch when the five-star Bryce Young arrived in early January. Nobody – not a player or coach interviewed by ESPN – said they had ever heard Jones talk about a move. Saban said it was rare that he was “willing to work on development and not do what a lot of people are doing now when they don’t have immediate, positive masturbation and are trying to do something else.”
“He just never really brought any negative energy into this whole situation,” said Hereford. “I could see a lot of people asking, ‘Why the hell am I on the scout team?’ and feeling stuck there after years. Other people would feel that way, but Mac Jones wouldn’t. I think he just had it in his head that if he just kept working, it would happen. “
It is in this trust that Jones and Burrow are most alike. It’s a boast they share. You can see it on the soccer field, whether it’s their style of play or the way teammates react to them.
Jones even has a nickname for himself: the Joker.
It started sometime in Jones’ second season. He had that laugh, a kind of open, high-pitched cackle that reminded offensive lineman Richie Petitbon of the famously twisted Batman villain. Teammates picked it up and Jones leaned over, one day wearing a Joker costume to the football facility.
But what started out as a simple observation of a strange laugh turned into something more when Jones got the chance to play. Like the Joker in the comics and movies, Jones seemed almost fun to be met. Then he smiled and jumped across the field while ripping the heart out of the defense.
“Now it feels like he’s the joker, the badass,” said Hereford. “That’s Mac. He’s a straight killer.”
It reminds Hereford of Burrow.
“It’s like a warrior boast,” he said. “It’s kind of a look from someone who is confident and balanced, and not because they are like that, but because of the work they’ve done, because of the things they’ve been through. Like, ‘I’ve been through this, this and that, and I can’t stop myself. ‘”
To whom do we owe Jones’s sudden appearance?
The answer lies, at least in part, one game before the goal against Michigan. In the past, when Saban talked about Jones, he would often quote one roadblock the young quarterback had to remove: himself.
Too many times Jones made a mistake and thought about it, and turned a bad game into two and three and so on. It wasn’t about the talent or ability of the poor, said Saban, it was about “staying focused” and “making good decisions and not thinking”[ing] too much about it. “
On the road against a senior Auburn team – Jones’ first street start, the regular season finale, and last chance at the playoffs – he did just that. He threw a pick-six and followed him with touchdowns on the next two drives. Then he threw another pick-six in the third quarter – a brisk game that bounced off the back of its target – and immediately marched on the offensive to take the lead.
Alabama lost the shootout at 48:45, but Jones mentally proved he was ready for the spotlight and the pressure that came with it. Jones had a better pass rating against Auburn than Burrow and against a good defense in Michigan a better rating than Justin Fields of Ohio.
In terms of refining those parts of his game that needed improvement, Burrow himself owes a certain amount of credit.
Joe Dickinson, a longtime quarterbacks coach who has worked with Jones since he was sixth grade, told Jones this off-season to study Burrow – not necessarily the LSU offense, but Burrow himself. Check out technical things like Burrow’s footwork on, Dickinson said to his student, but also look at the bigger picture.
Like Burrow, Jones is exactly. They are both smart and see the field well. And like Burrow, Jones has a sneaky amount of athleticism. Dickinson said he looked over Zoom at Jones one day and asked, “What is he doing that you can’t?”
While Burrow had Clyde Edwards-Helaire running back, Jones has Najee Harris. While Burrow had Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase as recipients, Jones has DeVonta Smith and John Metchie.
“Burrow was considered a game manager until they let go of him, right?” Asked Dickinson. “Then he wasn’t the game manager, he was the Heisman Trophy manager.”
He added, “I wanted to [Jones] to see these things because people will say he’s a game manager. … So I encouraged him to look at this deal and say, ‘Where can I take my jump?’ “
An SEC coach said while Alabama has a lot of talent for Jones, the quarterback is “very talented himself.” The coach, who spoke to ESPN on condition of anonymity, said Jones could do all of the throws. he has a good understanding of coverages; he does not panic under pressure; he has a good pocket awareness; he is mobile; and instead of waiting for the receivers to be opened, he anticipates them and “throws them up”.
When asked if Jones reminded him of anyone, the coach tried to find a comparison. Then he added, “But I can see the similarities between him and Joe.”
Six games in the season, Jones has made a leap into another stratosphere. It has gone from being unannounced to being incredibly popular. He has executed 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions and ranks second in the QBR nationwide. After starting out on the Mel Kiper Jr. big board and not being mentioned in Kiper’s quarterback rankings, Jones now checks in at 24th overall and is well on the way to being talked about a first choice .
Not only is he one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, leading Alabama to an undefeated season. He’s number 2 behind Florida’s Kyle Trask in ESPN’s most recent Heisman Trophy poll.
The next stop on his coming-out party: a home game against Kentucky, where he might even have gone to college.
Kentucky manager Mark Stoops said Monday that Alabama is just as insulted as he has seen it in his 18 years as a coach or defensive coordinator. He added, “Mac plays at an extremely high level.”
While Jones criticized his criticism for reversing his commitment to Alabama, there must be a grudging respect among Wildcats fans for what he’s become. Bends down and wishes Jones were actually in Lexington by now. Seeing him successful, Stoops said, is an endorsement of what they saw in recruiting all those years ago.
He may not be exactly Joe Burrow – we may never see another player do what he did – but Jones is the best example this year of how quickly a quarterback can improve when given the opportunity gets to it.