TUSCALOOSA — Jared Mayden remembers the first time he knew Mac Jones had what it took to start at Alabama.
It was three years ago when Jones, the skinny former three-star Florida product, was on scout team and went toe-to-toe with head coach Nick Saban.
"There's not too many people that go back and forth with Coach Saban,” Mayden recalled Tuesday.
The story, as Mayden tells it, involved Saban getting more and more frustrated as the then-freshman Jones repeatedly threw “bombs” to fellow scout-team receiver Tyrell Shavers against Alabama’s first-string defense.
”Man, stop throwing it to him all the time,” Saban barked, according to Mayden.
Jones dished it right back though: “Well, tell your defense to stop it.”
“Like, for a quarterback to have that type of charisma about himself, you know I'll be behind him all the time,” Mayden said Tuesday.
That time is now as Jones, the Crimson Tide’s redshirt sophomore backup, must assume the reins of Alabama’s high-powered offense after junior starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending — and more than likely collegiate career-ending — right hip injury Saturday against Mississippi State that required surgery Monday morning in Houston.
Jones takes over at Alabama (9-1, 6-1 SEC), which still has plenty to play for, including an outside shot at the College Football Playoff with two weeks remaining.
Of course, without its Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback and a three-loss Auburn (7-3, 4-3 SEC) as the only ranked team remaining on its schedule, the Crimson Tide faces an uphill climb and rampant criticism on that front, whether its players like it or not.
“I feel like it’s stupid,” Tide junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. said Monday. “From my standpoint, we have the best players that come here, the best quarterbacks that come here. So no matter what, we’re still going to compete.”
In the meantime, there’s some uncertainty surrounding what Alabama might look like with Jones behind center instead of a transformative talent like Tagovailoa, who many projected to be the No. 1 quarterback in next year’s NFL draft — before his injury.
For those at the Mal Moore Athletic Complex, a change at quarterback doesn’t affect much of anything as the Tide prepare for its home finale Saturday against Western Carolina and the annual Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn next week.
“I feel we move forward the same way,” Wills said.
Tagovailoa is ranked second nationally (behind former Tide teammate turned Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts) with a 206.93 quarterback rating, having thrown for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns to three interceptions on 180-of-252 passing (71.4 percent).
Meanwhile, Jones simply hasn’t had as much opportunity to air it out this season, playing mostly in mop-up duty through the first half of the season. In fact, roughly 70-percent of Jones’ passing production this year has come in three of the last four games after replacing an injured Tagovailoa against both Tennessee and Mississippi State and starting against Arkansas three weeks ago in Tagovailoa’s place.
Over those three games, Jones has combined for 401 of his 566 passing yards this season and three of four touchdowns, completing 31-of-44 attempts (70.5 percent) in that span. Much of that came in his first career start when Jones went 18-of-22 passing for 235 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-7 win over the Razorbacks on Oct. 26.
“I don’t think the offense changes much at all. Mac played in the Arkansas game and did a nice job,” Saban said Monday. “He’s smart. He understands the offense. He’s made a lot of improvement throughout the course of the year. We have a lot of confidence in Mac and I think (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has) done a really good job of helping him develop throughout the year.”
The week before that Arkansas game, Jones took all the first-team reps at quarterback with Tagovailoa in his first few days following a tightrope surgical procedure on his right ankle after suffering a high ankle sprain against Tennessee.
It’s because of that experience that many around the program believe Jones can step into Tagovailoa’s shoes and prosper, especially now that he’s the unquestioned starter.
“I feel like this time will help him, knowing that he has to go in and play, knowing that Tua’s out for the rest of the season,” Wills said. “Everybody knows that. He knows that he has to go in there and be the starting QB, there's no questions about it. I feel like he has that time to prepare fully and also know it’s up to him.”
Whether that means Jones has what it takes to become the next “backup” to lead Alabama to a national championship is hard to say, but based on what they’ve already seen from him at practice, his teammates have all the confidence in the world in their new starting quarterback.
“I tell him all the time, 'I believe in you. When it's your time, you're going to shine. You will be a good quarterback, a great quarterback,’” Mayden said.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser sports reporter Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_AlexByington.