“I’ve never seen someone just grind, grind, grind the way he does.”
A college quarterback that was buried on a depth chart, stuck it out, battled his way to the top, finally got an opportunity and ran with it. Sound familiar?
Just kidding... Sort of.
Back in the summer of 2017, Mac Jones packed his bags and headed to Tuscaloosa as one of Alabama’s most unknown prospects. As a 3-star quarterback coming out of the Jacksonville area, only Jones knew at the time what he was capable of.
His story from being the third-string quarterback, to leading the Crimson Tide to a National Championship, to hearing his name called by the New England Patriots in the first round of last week’s NFL Draft did not come easy. In fact, it came after years of hard work, dedication, trusting the process, and a whole lot of patience.
It all started with a phone call from legendary Alabama head coach Nick Saban. He told Jones prior to arriving on campus that no other coaching staff would develop him better both on and off the field, and that everything was set up for him to succeed. However, he needed to put in the work on his own time to have everything pan out.
Jones knew from that moment that he had a great opportunity in front of him and although it was obvious he was not going to play right away, he wanted to earn the respect of his coaches and teammates and let the rest fall into place.
Since the moment he stepped on campus, he was buried on Alabama’s depth chart behind two National Championship winners. Jalen Hurts, who went on to have a 26-2 career record at Alabama prior to becoming a Heisman Trophy runner-up at Oklahoma, as well as future top draft pick Tua Tagovailoa, who helped lead the Crimson Tide to a National Championship in 2017.
In college football, the NCAA sometimes allows players to control their future. In an age where the grass always seems greener on the other side, Jones could have entered the transfer portal and chased his dream at any other university. Instead, he “didn’t want to be handed the keys” and continually wanted to finish what he started.
As a freshman and sophomore, he studied the leadership and quarterbacking skills displayed by both Hurts and Tagovailoa while working in the film and weight room to improve his physical abilities and get ready for whenever his number was called upon. In an interview with Touchdown Alabama, Jones recites that the biggest thing helping him stay on his path was a word of advice from a former coach.
“I remember Coach [Scott] Cochran telling me the stars don’t matter anymore. You can be a five-star or a zero-star, but it’s about what you do every day. You earn your respect, and I definitely earned my respect.”
Jones spent the majority of his freshman and sophomore years running Alabama’s scout team offense. Despite receiving no time on the actual playing field yet, he showed some of that fuel and competitiveness in practice. He once told Saban to “tell his defense to stop it” after the most successful college coach of his era told him to stop throwing touchdown bombs against his team's top-ranked defense.
Despite not getting any time on the field, Jones consistently caught the coaching staff’s eyes due to his preparation and success on the practice field.
He finally got onto the field for a meaningful snap as a third-string QB during his redshirt freshman season after Jalen Hurts was hobbled by an ankle sprain and Tua Tagovailoa was shaken up the play prior. It came in a jam-packed Tiger Stadium with Alabama facing off against rival LSU. Jones completed a screen pass to Josh Jacobs on 3rd-and-30 before Tagovailoa returned the following series.
On the other sideline? Joe Burrow — who, ironically, like Jones — was an overlooked quarterback and rose through the ranks to ultimately become a first-round pick and someone who he later used as inspiration to catapult his 2020 campaign.
Following a gruesome hip injury suffered by Tagovailoa, Jones finally got his shot in 2019 and never looked back. He shined in his first start in a 48-7 win over Arkansas, throwing for 235 yards and three touchdowns while completing 82 percent of his pass attempts.
However, the doubts were still there heading into the 2020 season. Despite Jones leading the Crimson Tide over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, many viewed 2020 as a transition year for a Crimson Tide team that was lacking a star-studded quarterback room like the ones fans were used to seeing over the past decade.
Once Covid-19 hit the world and the uncertainty it brought for the 2020 college football season, Jones stayed ready back home in Jacksonville. He trained five days a week with high school teammate and current Navy linebacker Jack Lundgren. Jones grew to 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds heading into his senior year, three inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier than when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Lundgren told Bama Insider, that Jones often used the aforementioned Joe Burrow as inspiration while gearing up for another quarterback battle, this time with highly touted 5-star recruit Bryce Young.
“We had both been talking about how [Burrow] has been able to extend plays or break through arm tackles in the pocket to make throws, that’s really something that Mac has been working on.”
During the summer, Jones also worked out in the Jacksonville area with Denny Thompson, the owner of a local quarterback training center, 6 Quarters. Jones was all ears over the summer while training with both NFL quarterbacks and pass catchers.
“Hearing Mac going through not even his concepts but theirs, the questions he was asking and the suggestions he was making — he just gets it,” Thompson told Bama Insider. “He’s a really smart man, not just in the football field but in every aspect. He’s one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve had the opportunity to be around. He does things that I see our NFL guys doing.”
All that time on the field, in the weight room and watching film paid off as Jones finally got his chance to be the opening day starter at Alabama in 2020. He took the college football world by storm leading Alabama to a perfect 6-0 start while completing 82 percent of his passes in that span for 2,196 yards and an 18-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Jones eventually led Alabama to Nick Saban’s second perfect season in program history going 13-0 and dismantling teams up into the National Championship.
The former 3-star recruit and third-string quarterback turned in one of the best seasons in college football history: he finished his first season as a full-time starter passing for 4,500 yards as well as 41 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He also set an FBS record with a 77.4 percent completion percentage. Jones was a Heisman finalist, was voted team captain by his teammates, and ultimately played his name into the first-round conversation.
There were still some doubts as he entered the pre-draft process. His athleticism and ability to create plays outside the pocket were the two that have followed him throughout his entire career. What people did not seem to realize, however, was how well he and consistent he performed before the snap and when it came to reading what the defenses gave him.
The more you watch Mac Jones, the more there is to like about his game. He is extremely accurate with the football and takes what is given to him. Parlay that with someone who gets better when the stakes are higher and pressures in your face, and you have got yourself a quarterback that is ready for the pro game.
On Thursday night, Jones became the highest-drafted offensive player under Bill Belichick and the team’s first first-round quarterback in almost three decades. Simultaneously, all of New England seemed to have released a sigh of relief with the Patriots finally having found their “quarterback of the future.”
Jones, after all, is deemed as a perfect fit for the Patriots system. Not only because his play seemingly resembles that of Tom Brady, but because he has had a similar path and does a lot of the little things right that tend to often get overlooked ion the college quarterback evaluation process.
Jones still has his doubters — just like he did at Alabama — but there is no denying that the Patriots have a quarterback that is willing to continue to put the work in and try to develop into the face of their franchise.
As Mac Jones is set to join quarterbacks Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham in the room this upcoming season, he will have to battle his way to the top once again. Considering what it has taken to get this far, this latest challenge should be a piece of cake.