Former QB-in-waiting keeps ‘Bama machine rolling

Plenty of people discouraged Mac Jones from ever going to Alabama. After all, the Crimson Tide already had a quarterback named Jalen Hurts a year ahead of him and another named Tua Tagovailoa in their 2017 recruiting class.

Why go to Tuscaloosa when you aren’t even the top QB they are bringing in?

Plenty of people encouraged Mac Jones to leave Alabama. After all, halfway through his third season on campus the Jacksonville, Florida, native had attempted a grand total of 33 passes. Oh, and Nick Saban had signed a five-star recruit from California, Bryce Young, that many thought would be the Day 1 starter for the 2020 season.

Why stay in Tuscaloosa when you are never going to be anything but a backup/insurance policy?

That was never how Mac Jones saw it though. That isn’t how a lot of Alabama players see it.

And that’s why you keep seeing Alabama do things like it did on Friday — mauling Notre Dame, 31-14, in a playoff semifinal to advance to their eight national championship game in the last 12 years.

Jones threw for 297 yards and four touchdowns Friday. He’s now tossed 36 on the season, while completing more than 77% of his passes. He’s a Heisman finalist and one game from engineering a perfect, national title season.

The above paragraph would have been mind-boggling to many a couple years ago, when he was entrenched on the bench. Not even Jones may be willing to acknowledge it all.

“I’m not very athletic,” Jones said after completing 25 of 30 passes against the Irish. “I just try to get the ball to the right people.”

He was asked if he was preparing a speech for the Heisman ceremony.

“That’s a rat-poison question,” Jones said, brushing aside anything but team goals.

Landon Dickerson and Mac Jones (10) of the Alabama Crimson Tide pose with the Leishman Trophy after defeating Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 1. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)Landon Dickerson and Mac Jones (10) of the Alabama Crimson Tide pose with the Leishman Trophy after defeating Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 1. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Landon Dickerson and Mac Jones (10) of the Alabama Crimson Tide pose with the Leishman Trophy after defeating Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium on Jan. 1. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Jones may not be the obvious poster boy for the machine that Saban has built at Alabama — certainly not before the parade of powerful running backs (such as Najee Harris, who hurdled his way to 125 yards against the Irish) or gifted wide receivers (such as DeVonta Smith, who hauled in three touchdowns) or road-grating offensive lineman (such as Alex Leatherwood, who kept collapsing parts of the Notre Dame defense) … and we haven’t even got to the defense.

Yet he is them and they are him, all part of what — in this era of transfer portals and opt-outs and instant gratification — makes Alabama so unmovable at the top of the sport.

Jones went there on a dare and then dared to stay, in part because Saban isn’t just looking for the most talented players, but the most talented players who might be able to handle being surrounded by equally talented, if not even more talented players. The Venn diagram on that is smaller than you’d think.

It could be mega-recruits who are willing to wait and work for their turn such as Harris, a five-star who got just 55 carries as a freshman but is now nearly untackleable; or Smith, who got on the field in just six games as a freshman but has now caught a SEC-record 20 touchdowns on the season and is up for the Heisman too; or Leatherwood, who once saw only garbage-time snaps but is now an Outland finalist and possible first-round pick.

Or it may be somebody like Jones, who never knew if his season of glory would ever arrive, but decided it was worth the effort anyway.

Early on, Jones’ father came up with a way for Mac to define himself as he fought for practice reps, let alone championship trophies. Mac was a “first-string quarterback just waiting his turn.”

That’s it. So just keep going.

Sure, he could have stuck with his commitment to Kentucky and likely started earlier in his career, and certainly he could have transferred to lots of schools and played right away, but Jones didn’t choose Alabama because it would be easy.

He chose it because it would be hard.

And he didn’t stay at Alabama because a starting job was promised to him, but because he’d have to earn it and keep earning it. The pressure for playing time never eases.

Hurts won the Tide a national championship only to be benched in favor of Tagovailoa, who then won another. Jones eventually filled in for an injured Tua last season and now may join the other two in bringing his own title back to campus.

On and on it spins.

In a different era, back when scholarship numbers could hover around 150 or more at the biggest programs, and thus playing time was ever harder to earn, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler tried to maintain motivation by declaring that “those that stay will be champions.”

Alabama QB Mac Jones (10) throws a pass under pressure from the rush by Notre Dame in the second half of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. (AP)Alabama QB Mac Jones (10) throws a pass under pressure from the rush by Notre Dame in the second half of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. (AP)
Alabama QB Mac Jones (10) throws a pass under pressure from the rush by Notre Dame in the second half of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. (AP)

The concept was an easier sell then. It’s nearly impossible now. The transfer market is relentless. And Schembechler was talking about Big Ten crowns, not national ones which are about the only standard at Alabama these days.

Yet Saban has managed to pull it off, an old-school concept seeking old-school souls in this very cutting-edge time for college football. Here, when everyone wants something now, patience is a prerequisite inside the Tide football building.

Jones has embraced it and eventually seized his moment. So did Harris and Smith and Leatherwood and all the others.

They are, in their own way, as maniacal of competitors as Saban, who against Notre Dame got an unsportsmanlike conduct flag while up 24 points with just over three minutes left in the game and earlier nearly broke a non-working ESPN headset during a halftime interview.

He never stops.

Neither do the guys who play for him. Or the ones who are still hoping to play for him.

Mac Jones was one of those guys and now he is one game from everything — quarterbacking an unbeaten, national champion while putting up video game stats and turning NFL scouting heads.

Maybe no one saw this coming but him. But then again, if you spend your time caring about what anyone else thinks, you won’t last long at Alabama.

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