The hit was something else.
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson — all 6-foot-5, 269 pounds of him — left his feet and came crashing down on the chin and face mask of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Trailing 13-7 in the first quarter, Jones laid on the ground for a split second as he absorbed the punishing blow. Teammates cringed on the sideline. A flag was thrown. It was roughing the passer. Alabama picked up a first down, but what about Jones?
He had waited more than three years for this moment, backing up Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts before him. Tagovailoa had suffered a season-ending hip injury, forcing Jones into the starting lineup two games earlier. Against No. 14 Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, heading into an offseason in which the top dual-threat quarterback in the country would be joining the program, this was a crucial time for Jones to create separation — just not the separation of his soul leaving his body.
But Jones popped back up as if nothing had happened. In fact, he seemed to have picked up a little edge about him, an aura of determination. A commemorative 150 patch had been partially torn and was hanging off the shoulder of his jersey. Jones stared at the sideline eager for the next call, then he ripped off the patch and got in position to take the snap. Inside, his teammates went berserk.
Wideout Mac Hereford and offensive lineman Pierce Quick were stunned. Hereford said it felt like a movie, like an emotional climax because it so perfectly summed up who Jones is and how long he had been waiting to show who he is. Hereford said he and Quick looked at each other on the sideline and said, “Oh my God, this guy’s a warrior.”
“It was like nothing would stand in his way,” Hereford said, “because he’d already been through the hardest parts of his career.”
Jones not only went on to lead the offense to a game-tying touchdown on that drive, but he made a statement with his play the rest of the way. The lanky kid from Jacksonville, Florida, who nobody pegged as Alabama’s starter, captained the Crimson Tide to a decisive 35-16 win over Michigan and threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in the process.
That hit and the way Jones responded to it told Hereford everything he needed to know about his quarterback. After wondering whether Jones’ day would ever come, it was finally here.
A confident Jones told reporters in Orlando that it was his team now. And after what they had just witnessed, who was going to argue otherwise?
If that scene sounds familiar, it should. Because a year before Jones was leveled by Hutchinson in the Citrus Bowl, LSU’s Joe Burrow had a similarly punishing breakout moment when he was demolished by UCF linebacker Nate Evans during the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. Evans triumphantly stood over a laid-out Burrow, who at the time was little more than an afterthought nationally — he had only thrown 12 touchdowns and four interceptions during the regular season. But after that hit, something in Burrow came loose as he led LSU to a 40-32 win, throwing for 394 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in the process. Looking back, it was the start of it all.
Burrow was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in May, but his story never stopped dominating college football. How he went from a middle-of-the-pack quarterback one season to a national champion and Heisman Trophy winner the next couldn’t be discarded so quickly.
The moment he left LSU, the search was on. Who would be the next Joe Burrow?
On its face, the question was foolish. Not in the 150-year history of the sport had we seen something like what Burrow did. His 60 passing touchdowns were a record. What’s more, he rushed for five more touchdowns and threw only six interceptions.
But it was how Burrow did it that led coaches, players and prognosticators to believe that it might happen again. The most obvious reason was the speed of Burrow’s ascension, which gave hope to quarterbacks who had been left for dead that greatness was right around the corner.
Less obvious was the way in which Burrow emerged. Because it wasn’t as if Burrow had an ideal arm or otherworldly athletic gifts. Burrow certainly had a strong arm, but it wasn’t a Howitzer. And he was fast, but only in the sense that he was fast enough to outrun a defensive lineman or a linebacker. Rather, what separated Burrow was his decision making. He processed information so quickly and almost always made the right read.
And isn’t that something every quarterback believes they can improve on? You can improve your arm strength only so much, and you can get only so much faster. But work hard enough — study, practice, pray — and you, too, can be like Joe Burrow.
Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond was talked about as someone who might make a Burrow-esque leap. The same went for Miami’s D’Eriq King, Notre Dame’s Ian Book and others. It was such a phenomenon that ESPN’s Bill Connelly created what he called “The Burrow Index.”
But there was someone few people were talking about in the summer, someone quietly analyzing Burrow cut-ups for clues, who would end up approximating last season’s Heisman winner the best. And as luck would have it, he was right in LSU’s backyard. Tiger fans might cringe at this, but the next Joe Burrow was a budding star at their most hated rival, Alabama.
Burrow might have emerged sooner if he hadn’t gone to Ohio State, where he was immediately overshadowed by a flood of talented quarterbacks. First it was J.T. Barrett. Then Barrett got hurt and Cardale Jones took over. Then Barrett came back. And when Barrett finally left, it was Dwayne Haskins who won the starting job. It was then, heading into his redshirt junior season, that Burrow relented and transferred to LSU.
Jones ought to sympathize. He was originally committed to Kentucky and might have been the Wildcats’ quarterback long ago had Nick Saban not arrived by helicopter at the Bolles School in Jacksonville one day. It was hard holding back the other students when Saban landed, coach Wayne Belger remembers. Saban offered Jones a scholarship, and he accepted. Not only would Jones sign in the same class as Tagovailoa, but he would do so knowing that Hurts was a year ahead of him and on his way to becoming the first freshman since Herschel Walker to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
“He’s not afraid of competition,” Belger said. “If he had been afraid of competition, he would have gone ahead and gone to Kentucky.”
So Jones waited out Hurts and then he waited out Tagovailoa, and he didn’t so much as flinch when five-star Bryce Young arrived early in January. No one — no player or coach interviewed by ESPN — said they ever heard Jones talk of transferring. Saban said it’s rare that he “was willing to work to develop and not do what a lot of people do now when they don’t have immediate, positive self-gratification and look to do something somewhere else.”
“He just never really brought negative energy toward that whole situation,” Hereford said. “I could see a lot of guys asking, ‘Why the heck am I on scout team?’ and feeling stuck after years there. Other guys would feel like that, but Mac Jones didn’t. I guess he just had it in his head that it was going to happen if he just keeps working.”
It’s that confidence where Jones and Burrow are the most alike. It’s a swagger they share. You can see it on the football field, whether it’s their style of play or the way teammates respond to them.
Jones even has a nickname for his persona: the Joker.
It started out sometime during Jones’ sophomore season. He had this laugh, a kind of open-mouthed, high-pitched cackle that offensive lineman Richie Petitbon said reminded him of the famously twisted Batman villain. Teammates picked up on it and Jones leaned in, wearing a Joker costume to the football facility one day.
But what began as a simple observation about a peculiar laugh turned into something more when Jones got his opportunity to play. Like the Joker in the comic books and movies, Jones almost seemed to enjoy getting hit. Then he’d smile and skip down the field as he ripped the defense’s heart out.
“Now it’s got this vibe like he’s the Joker, this badass,” Hereford said. “That’s how Mac is. He’s a straight killer.”
It reminds Hereford of Burrow.
“It’s like a warrior swagger thing,” he said. “It’s a kind of look of someone who is confident and poised, and not because that’s the way they are, but because of the work they put in, because of the things they’ve been through. Like, ‘I’ve been through this, this and that, and there’s no stopping me.'”
So to what do we owe Jones’ sudden emergence?
The answer, at least in part, lies one game prior to the hit he sustained against Michigan. Before then, whenever Saban spoke about Jones, he would frequently cite a roadblock the young quarterback needed to clear: himself.
Too often Jones would make a mistake and dwell on it, letting one bad play become two and three and so on. It wasn’t a matter of arm talent or ability, Saban said, it was about “staying focused” and making “good choices and decisions and not think[ing] about it too much.”
On the road against a ranked Auburn team — Jones’ first road start, the regular-season finale and the last chance at making the playoff — he did just that. He threw a pick-six and followed it up with touchdowns on the next two drives. Then he threw another pick-six in the third quarter — a flukish play that bounced off his target’s back — and promptly marched the offense down the field for another touchdown to take the lead.
Alabama lost the shootout, 48-45, but Jones proved mentally he was ready for the spotlight and the pressure that came with it. Jones produced a better passer rating against Auburn than Burrow, and a better rating against a quality Michigan defense than Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
In terms of refining the parts of his game that needed improvement, some measure of credit is due to Burrow himself.
Joe Dickinson, a longtime quarterback coach who has been working with Jones on and off since he was in the sixth grade, told Jones this offseason that he should study Burrow — not the LSU offense necessarily but Burrow himself. Look at technical things like Burrow’s footwork, Dickinson told his pupil, but look at the bigger picture, too.
Like Burrow, Jones is accurate. They’re both smart and see the field well. And, like Burrow, Jones has a sneaky amount of athleticism. Dickinson said he looked at Jones over Zoom one day and asked, “What’s he doing that you can’t do?”
“Burrow was considered to be a game manager until they turned him loose, right?” Dickinson asked. “Then he wasn’t the game manager, he was the Heisman Trophy manager.”
He added: “I wanted (Jones) to see those things because people are going to say he’s a game manager. … So I encouraged him to look at that deal and say, ‘Where can I make my jump?'”
An SEC coach said that while Alabama has a ton of talent surrounding Jones, the quarterback is “very talented himself.” The coach, who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity, said Jones can make all the throws; he has a good understanding of coverages; he doesn’t panic under pressure; he has good pocket awareness; he’s mobile; and rather than waiting for receivers to get open, he anticipates and “throws them open.”
Asked whether Jones reminds him of anyone, the coach struggled to come up with a comparison. Then he added, “But I can see the similarities between him and Joe.”
Six games into the season, Jones has made a jump into another stratosphere. He has gone from being unheralded to unimaginably popular. He’s thrown 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions, and he ranks second nationally in QBR. After starting out unranked on Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board and unmentioned in Kiper’s quarterback rankings, Jones now checks in at 24th overall and is well on his way to being in the conversation of becoming a first-round pick.
The next stop in his coming-out party: a home game against Kentucky, where he might have gone to college in the first place.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said on Monday that Alabama has as good an offense as he’s seen in his 18 years as a coach or defensive coordinator. He added, “Mac is playing at an extremely high level.”
While Jones took his fair share of criticism for flipping his commitment to Alabama, there has to be a begrudging respect among Wildcat fans for what he’s become. Stoops wishes Jones was in Lexington now, in fact. Seeing him succeed, Stoops said, is affirmation for what they saw recruiting him all those years ago.
He may not be Joe Burrow exactly — we may never see another player do what he did — but Jones is this year’s best example of how quickly a quarterback can improve when he gets an opportunity.