HE WAS BURIED on the Alabama depth chart, way down deep where the sun never reached, so Mac Jones' most urgent reason for existing in this moment was to make Nick Saban's defense better, more fearsome, the ilk of defense that wins championships five times in nine seasons.
Jones knew well his mission as scout team quarterback for this particular drill: Hail Mary, heave the ball deep, no matter what, no question. But not a single player on that fearsome, championship-winning defense was covering his friend Derek Kief, so why not, Jones figured.
Jones tossed an emphatically not-deep screen pass Kief's way, then ran behind the wide receiver. In a nifty plot twist, Kief pitched the ball back to Jones, who beelined for the (practice) end zone and "scored." Jones spiked the ball then looked up.
Saban, straw hat perched in its time-honored spot, was sprinting down the field, as crimson with fury as the band around that hat.
"I GOT ABSOLUTELY destroyed by Coach Saban for the next 10 minutes," Jones says now, some three years removed from the foolhardy crimes of his youth. (Read: freshman year.) "Everyone still brings it up, and I'm super embarrassed."
Then he barks out a laugh. Or laughs out a bark. He bark-laughs.
Surely you've heard this bark-laugh, or at least heard word of it. It's the one that inspired Alabama's former offensive lineman Richie Petitbon to dub Jones "Joker." As in the Joker, all volcanic laugh and spasmodic bursts of movement and overall gaucheness. "He's got this big, stupid smile on his face," Petitbon says. "I mean, it's huge."
Surely now you're thinking, This guy? This is the joker (pun decidedly intended) who incensed Saban in his scout team days, who was rumored to have the audacity to jaw back and forth with Saban back then too and lived to tell the tale? Survived to become Alabama's starting -- nay, star -- quarterback for this 2020 season?
Indeed, Mac Jones is the bold, peculiar quarterback capturing hearts, minds and sundry historical records at Alabama in this, his breakout year. And it's this bold, peculiar quarterback who might just lead the Tide out of the national championship desert -- nearly a three-year stretch with no titles, which amounts to a drought in Tuscaloosa. That quest begins in earnest on Saturday; the SEC championship game, and the Florida Gators' own Heisman-caliber quarterback, Kyle Trask, awaits.
Before all that, Jones' proclivity for needling Notorious Laid-Back Fella Nick Saban was hardly rare, and not really all that exclusive to Nick Saban. Neither Petitbon nor Miller Forristall, Alabama's redshirt senior tight end, are even sure they recall the exact Hail Mary fiasco that still makes Jones blush today, because his shenanigans were abundant enough to have all bled together lo these many years.
"That sounds like something that's happened more than once," Petitbon says.
"There's a lot of days where I remember Mac getting yelled at by Coach Saban," Forristall concurs. "Or yelled at by the defense. He loved it."
What makes Forristall say such a thing?
"Uh, the giant smile on his face?" he explains slowly and with what feels like a touch of mock indulgence, as though the question itself is so self-evident as to be rendered absurd.
It's that smile and his general veneer of goofiness, really, that unlocks the mystery of Mac Jones' enduring and disarming brand of charm. And why even if he makes the defense mad or Saban mad, his targets don't stay that way for all that long. "Mac's pretty goofy," Forristall says. "He's real goofy," clarifies Alabama senior wide receiver DeVonta Smith. "He's a clown," punctuates Kalif Jackson, who has known Jones since they were 15-year-old rivals in 7-on-7, dispensing with any uncertainty.
Mac Jones doesn't laugh, you see, he cackles. He doesn't dance, he wiggles. He doesn't talk smack, he banters and cheeses while doing so.
So here's this kid, this joker, who has never -- not once -- looked the part of QB1. Jones' father, Gordon, was a professional tennis player in his day; he played in qualifying at Wimbledon and the French Open, and his calling card was a powerful, soul-crushing serve. He's a hulk of a man, even now in his 60s, who could pass for a quarterback more easily than his son, the actual star quarterback. Mac? He was the string bean. The scrawny kid whom Jack Lundgren, Jones' high school teammate and close friend, guffawed at when he first laid eyes on him. The scrawny kid who grew into a less scrawny but still not awe-inspiring 6-foot-3, 214 pounds. Let's just say such physical stature does not a Cam Newton make. He's more Tom Brady ... circa 2000, at the NFL scouting combine, shirt off, pastiness thrown into sharp relief, nary a muscle in sight. The resemblance is so uncanny that Jones once tweeted a portrait of himself clipped alongside Brady's inglorious combine photo.
And it's this not-physical marvel who will challenge the fastest guy on the team to a race, blather on about how he'll leave that fastest guy in the dust, then wink.
Jones is in on the joke, in other words. He's different and he knows it. He's unconventional and he accepts it.
When asked to self-evaluate, to put himself in context with 2020's other quarterback phenoms -- Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields and Trask -- Jones offers a frank assessment: "Those guys can probably all throw better than me, and some of them can run faster than me. I wouldn't say I have a bunch of physical characteristics that are super impressive." Then he bark-laughs.
And after Alabama shamed Mississippi State in October, a 41-0 indignity, he sat at a podium with Smith and explained why he dove headfirst at the end of one particular run. "I could've bounced it outside, I guess. But I'm not really fast."
"I don't know ..."
"I don't know if I would have made it out there."
Meanwhile, Smith, seated to his left, broke out in a mile-wide grin and dropped his head to giggle to himself.
See, Jones is different and unconventional, but he doesn't just know it and accept it. He embraces it -- and it's a strange, beguiling alchemy that makes everyone embrace him. (Truly, his teammates gush, making him out to be something of a cross between lovable mascot and pesky but precious little brother. "He's just Jooooooker, you know?" Petitbon says.) The result is a picture of an endearingly awkward, unnervingly talented 22-year-old kid with serious most-interesting-man-in-college-football vibes. He's known, in no particular order, for his sage investment advice, his natural salsa dancing skills, and his eclectic and encyclopedic appreciation of all genres of music. He is, his friends and family assure you, a real live Renaissance man masquerading as a football star.
Mac Jones speaks Mandarin!
Fact check: mostly true. He studied the language as a high school student at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he grew up, and he wasn't even the first Jones to do so. He followed in the footsteps of his older sister, Sarah Jane, and the two spoke in Chinese as a "secret code" if they wanted to talk about their parents while in front of their parents. He has let his skills get rusty in Tuscaloosa, but he can probably still cover the basics. "I play football at Alabama," Jones offers as one example of something he can say in Mandarin. "I want a drink of water."
Mac Jones was a child model!
Fact check: most assuredly true. He appeared in local commercials -- for the zoo, a medical center, Party City, and that last one popped up for years around Halloween. His legacy lives on, in fact, thanks to a pair of decade-old photos that to this day welcome visitors to the website for Adventure Landing, a water park/mini-golf/go-kart bonanza of an entertainment complex near Jacksonville Beach. Look for him: He's the kid with hair so blond it's practically white and a smile so wide it looks as if he might actually have strained a facial muscle. Jones gave up modeling once it became impossible to balance that side hustle with the increasing demands of football, but he was a ham and delighted in those gigs, his mother, Holly, says.
If his modeling days are behind him, his days as a ham are very much not. Back in the offseason, in those disorienting early months of the pandemic when everyone was sent home, Jones returned to Jacksonville to quarantine. He'd head to nearby Plantation Park three or four times a week, throwing the football with his quarterback coach and a handful of friends from his hometown, and on one such day, the coach nudged his pupil with a reminder. Find the laces first. Don't forget to find the laces before you let it rip.
Jones smiled at the prodding, a rejoinder at the ready. "Why I gotta find the laces when I'm throwing diiiiimes?"
MAC JONES IS throwing dimes this season better than just about any of his 2020 contemporaries.
Amendment: Mac Jones is heaving dimes this season better than just about any of his contemporaries. Through 10 games, he has accounted for 10 touchdown passes thrown way downfield -- 30 yards or more. Lawrence through eight games? Five.
"I really like the touch, ball placement and trajectory on those vertical shots," ESPN draft guru Todd McShay wrote a few days after Jones threw for 291 yards while leading Alabama to 41 points against Mississippi State. (Those 291 yards? Low by Jones' 2020 standards. His back-to-back-to-back 400-yard games through three weeks in October set an Alabama record.)
McShay's counterpart, Mel Kiper Jr., says it's this very addition to Jones' game -- the deep ball -- that's impressed him most this year. And not just Jones' ability to launch it. His unflagging willingness to launch it.
It takes a certain measure of bravado to want to even try deep throw after deep throw after deep throw. But if Jones is a deep-ball maestro, if he looks as if he's gliding on water out there, it's only because we can't see how furiously he's treading water just below the surface. He enlists his girlfriend, Sophie Scott, to drop by the Alabama facility late at night to holler out the team's playbook while he diagrams plays. ("Dallas, Nebraska, 37, 59 on left, right, shift three!" Gordon mock-yells in explaining the duo's game-prep ritual.) When Holly visited Tuscaloosa, she brought a label maker at her son's request, and she arrived to find his guest bedroom overrun with playbooks. Jones had indexed and pored over every single playbook he had ever been given throughout his Alabama career. And in the offseason, when Jones conducted a self-audit, he looked at the glut of sheer wide receiver wizardry at his disposal in Tuscaloosa -- Smith and John Metchie III and Jaylen Waddle -- and concluded he'd very much like to capitalize on those deep threats by perfecting his deep ball.
Jones called up his old quarterback coach, Joe Dickinson, who then flew from his hometown in Oklahoma to Tuscaloosa in February for a one-day deep-ball binge fest. They practiced not overstriding, not locking his front knee, lest the ball sail. They watched film, and they brought in his receivers to run routes. They worked. They worked and they worked and they worked, which is why you see the throw that made Dickinson -- Coach D to his disciples -- kvell in the second game of Alabama's season, against Texas A&M. Coach D thinks it was the first touchdown of the day that stood out to him -- a 38-yard arcing pass to Metchie that caught the receiver in stride, and which Metchie then took another 40 yards to the end zone. Jones went on to throw an 87-yard touchdown pass to Waddle in the third quarter and a 63-yard score to Metchie, again, in the fourth. The point is, these bombs all start to blend together, in a very first-world-problem kind of way.
But what Coach D loved (he thinks) about that 38-yard throw in particular (he's pretty sure) is that it caught Metchie right in stride. No muss, no fuss.
"The throw you really like to look at as a coach is where you took all the stress off the wide receiver," he says. "His guys can handle a lot of stress. But when you take all the stress off 'em, that's all quarterback."
That it's this quarterback, though, reaching this level of success, was hardly preordained.
Back in his scout team days, when his lone claim to fame was a knack for rankling his head coach, Jones would warm up on the field before games to find his mother armed with a camera and snapping a steady stream of photographs for posterity. She estimates she has thousands of such pictures. She wasn't sure he'd ever see the field for a game, so she figured if he was taking the field for warm-ups, that would work just fine as a photo opportunity.
"Don't make fun of me for that!" Holly remembers scolding others who scolded her for her zeal. "I'm gonna take pictures of my kid warming up!"
Jones' parents had heard seductive predictions for Mac's future, prognosticators who divined outsized success for their undersized son. Tom Brady confidant Scot Loeffler saw a high school-aged Jones at a camp and told Gordon that Mac would play on Sundays. John Lundgren, the father of Jones' teammate Jack, played golf at Notre Dame and swore Jones threw just like a quarterback the elder Lundgren used to play pickup games with in the snow back in South Bend. Some quarterback named Joe Montana.
But Jones was a late bloomer, in physical stature and success, which is perhaps why he is a legendary, if silly, smack talker behind closed doors ... but still seems more prone to self-deprecation than self-congratulation out in the wild.
"I don't really do many flashy things," he says. (Bark-laugh.)
Jones discounting his deep ball as a "flashy thing" aside, the truth is, he's sandwiched between one quarterback who was historically electric and another who is projected to be. He followed in the wake of Tua Tagovailoa, perhaps the best passer ever to come through Tuscaloosa; he had to fend off Bryce Young, 2020's top-ranked high school quarterback. Along the way, he's putting together a season in which his 96.0 Total QBR is not merely great within the confines of Alabama. It's on track to be the best mark in the history of the statistic, period.
Right in the sweet spot, there's this eccentrically bold and boldly eccentric quarterback who has turned himself into more than a stopgap between greatness. Mac Jones is throwing bombs and dropping bombs all the way to an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
A FEW YEARS after Tim Tebow was coronated a Heisman winner in 2007, he took his trophy out for a meet-and-greet spin in his hometown, and an 11-year-old burgeoning football player named Mac Jones pestered his parents until they agreed to haul him and his sister to The Avenues mall in Jacksonville to get a glimpse of greatness. Mac was the third of three children, so he had to do that a lot -- plead for things, including attention. He was game to dress up in his older sister's costumes, with his older sister's friends, in service of exactly that. Attention.
They waited in a snaking line for two hours just to be near Tebow and that trophy, and that renown, because Jones adored Tebow in that uniquely 11-year-old way. In such a way that when a teacher assigns you an essay, the only possible topic to explore in your 11-year-old brain is Tim Tebow's "Promise" speech, in which he vowed to the Florida Gators' fan base after a loss to Ole Miss in 2008 that no one would work harder than he would to not lose again.
So the Joneses crept through the line, and then Mac crept close to the Heisman Trophy. A decade before he'd have the chance to maybe earn his own, he stood behind that bronze stiff-arm and smiled his big, stupid smile. He barely grazes Tebow's shoulder.
"We didn't even talk much," Jones remembers. "It was just like, 'Oh my gosh. He's right there.'"
That his trip to the mall wasn't -- or at least isn't shaping up to be -- Jones' lone flirtation with Heisman glory is still something of a novelty, even three months and 10 games into this sideways 2020 season. For Jones. For the Jones family.
Before the 400-yard games and the deep-ball artistry, he was just a scout team quarterback with some panache. He's a Heisman contender with panache now, and he's close enough to the sun that it seems possible, maybe even probable, that some kid, somewhere, is whispering aloud a familiar refrain. Oh my gosh, Mac Jones is right there.