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A year removed from a QB battle in Tuscaloosa, Mac Jones’ wild ride comes full circle on Sunday

Mac Jones will make his first NFL start Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It was Nov. 16, 2019 and fifth-ranked Alabama was clinging onto their college football playoff hopes. Leading 35-7 just before the end of the first half, on a third-and-4, Tua Tagovailoa took the snap in the shotgun. Trying to escape the pressure that Mississippi State brought off the edge, he scrambled to his left. As he went to throw it away, two defenders landed hard on Tagovailoa. His hip was dislocated. His season was over.

“I’m good,” Mac Jones told then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as he put his hands on his shoulders prior to Jones taking the field.

That’s when the wild ride began.

Rewind to this time last year; in the midst of a global pandemic — with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 college football season — Mac Jones wasn’t a first-round pick. He wasn’t supposed to be the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. He was simply known as the longtime backup to Alabama legends Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.

Jones took over down the stretch leading Alabama to a 3-1 record and a Citrus Bowl victory over Michigan to end the 2019 season. In a loss to Auburn late in the year, Jones struggled early on, throwing a pair of pick-sixes to put Alabama on their heels early. However, the redshirt sophomore hung in there, took several big hits and finished the day throwing for 335 yards with four touchdowns. Jones’ ability to bounce back and shine in one of the biggest games of the year in college football stood out despite the loss.

Heading into the 2020 season, the Alabama coaching staff knew they might have had something in Jones. Despite limited on-field action throughout Jones first three years at Alabama, it was his demeanor and moxie that stuck with the players and coaches that had the chance to be around him each day.

“I’ve learned a lot from Tua and he’s still here helping out,” Jones told reporters after the Auburn loss, “but this is my team now.”

However, even after Jones made his strong case to finish off the 2019 season, he still wasn’t a lock to lead the Crimson Tide in 2020. He was in the midst of a quarterback battle as a redshirt junior trying to fend off five-star freshman Bryce Young.

Of course, Jones had his doubters — even former national champion quarterbacks out of Alabama didn’t buy the Jones experiment heading into 2020.

“I don’t think Mac Jones will be the starting quarterback at Alabama when the season is over. I think Bryce Young is a guy who is going to come in. He’s built with a smaller frame,” Greg McElroy said on SEC Network last September. “He’s not a big guy, but a really good athlete can swing the football all over the yard.”

Despite Covid-19 hitting the world following the 2019 season, Jones wasn’t going to let that stop him. He knew his opportunity was in front of him but he would have to beat out his competition to get his chance.

He had an advantage over Young in the sense that the freshman didn’t get an opportunity to participate in spring ball due to the pandemic. Jones, however, viewed quarantine as an opportunity to better himself so he could separate himself in fall camp.

He broke down film till 11 p.m., threw into a net and a tight garage window, and ran several passing camps to get the ball rolling early with Alabama’s explosive skill players. There was no shot Jones was going to pass up this opportunity that he waited years for.

Not only did he go on to win the starting job at Alabama, but also turned in one of the best seasons in college football history. The former three-star recruit out of Jacksonville finished his first season as a full-time starter, passing for 4,500 yards as well as 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also set an FBS record with a 77.4 percent completion rate. He was a Heisman finalist, voted a team captain by his teammates and ultimately played his name into the first round.

After the New England Patriots took Jones at No. 15 overall back just over a hundred days ago, all signs pointed towards Jones redshirting again and sitting behind Cam Newton.

That wasn’t the outlook for Jones.

Jones dove into the Patriots’ playbook the moment he got his hands on it. He shared on WEEI’s “Merloni & Fauria” that he spent the summer throwing into a net, drawing out the plays, and even running walkthroughs with his girlfriend in his backyard.

It stood out during OTAs and minicamp that Jones looked more confident and poised for a rookie quarterback. He started to earn respect on and off the field at an early part of the off-season.

Similar to the way his Alabama teammates viewed Jones, he quickly caught the eyes of some of the Patriots’ veterans. Matthew Slater and Dont’a Hightower praised Jones for his preparation and leadership skills despite coming in as a rookie trying to compete with a 32-year-old captain in Newton.

“Mac Jones — he’s going to be that guy. He’s a rookie, but he plays like a vet,” JC Jackson told reporters during his press conference last Thursday. “The way he reads defenses, the way he steps up in the pocket, delivers the ball — he’s improved since the first time I’d seen him.”

Despite a stellar preseason and training camp, the Patriots never elected to start Jones. He stepped in for Newton in all three exhibition games. All signs pointed toward the Patriots at least starting the season with Newton and having Jones wait for his opportunity.

However, when New England shockingly cut ties with Newton last week and letting the world know they were rolling with the rookie, it “didn't mean much” to Jones.

It was just the way he’d always viewed football.

From the moment Jones got to Tuscaloosa he had always prepared like he was the starter so when he finally got his chance, he was ready for it.

Despite Jones saying on WEEI this week that being the starter is just a “label” and the biggest thing is to “go out there and produce,” it’s been one hell of a ride for the Patriots’ QB1.

It’ll have been 666 days since Jones strapped on his helmet and took over for Tagovailoa when the two square off on Sunday. Jones was just looking to make a case for himself in college at that time, but now he leads the Patriots into a new era of its historic franchise.

Since he got his chance, Jones has beat out a five-star freshman for the starting gig at Alabama, completed one of the best seasons ever by a college quarterback, led the Crimson Tide to a perfect record, got drafted in the first round, and became the heir apparent to Tom Brady all in one calendar year.

It will all come full circle Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium when Jones faces off with the Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa — the guy he replaced to ultimately put him in this situation.