How 'warrior' Mac Jones is preparing for starting QB role at Alabama
Jack Lundgren says he’ll always remember Mac Jones as the scrawny 5-foot-6, 130-pound kid he grew up with in Jacksonville, Fla. Lately, that’s been harder and harder to do.
Lundgren, a Navy linebacker who played with Jones at Bolles High School, has been training with his old teammate this spring as the two look to stay in shape amid the restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Working at Jones’ house, the two are taking advantage of a makeshift workout space on the quarterback’s back porch where he has set up a full squat and power clean platform needed to adequately perform Alabama’s rigorous lift program.
Despite the change in environment, Jones hasn’t let his new surroundings alter his typical routine. The redshirt junior participates in Alabama’s full-body workouts four times a week. He runs the property and has access to a treadmill and Peloton bike for cardio work. His family even has a weekly delivery company that provides fresh, organic foods to help him maintain a healthy diet provided to him by team nutritionist Amy Bragg.
Jones is doing everything he can to make the most of quarantine life, and its showing. The 6-foot-2 quarterback is now up to 212 pounds, up seven pounds from his listed weight on Alabama’s current online roster.
“He doesn’t even look like the same person from when we were growing up,” Lundgren says with a laugh. “Obviously he’s grown height, but he’s put on a lot of weight. And it’s good weight, too. It’s all muscle. He’s really starting to fill out and look like a Division I quarterback. He’s obviously playing like one.”
Keeping up with the Jones'
Earlier this month, Nick Saban broke down film of Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow for the ESPN+ series “Detail.” The Alabama head coach isn’t the only member of the Crimson Tide who has studied the reigning Heisman Trophy winner this offseason.
According to Lundgren, Jones has used Burrow as inspiration the past few months as he looks to improve on his ability to extend plays in the pocket. Last season, the now No. 1 overall pick led the nation with a 71.4 completion percentage on dropbacks in which he took 2.5 seconds or more to deliver the ball, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We had both been talking about how he’s been able to extend plays or break through arm tackles in the pocket to make throws,” Lundgren said. “That’s really something that Mac has been working on, especially lifting weights to get that lower-body strength and mobility to be able to break through an arm tackle in the pocket and extend that play.”
To Jones’ credit, he performed generally well on extended plays last year. Among quarterbacks with at least 150 dropbacks, he ranked tied for No. 20 with a 58.8 completion percentage on passes which took 2.5 or more seconds to develop. Still, that’s a far dip from his 74.4 percent completion rate on throws made in fewer than 2.5 seconds.
By comparison, Burrow completed 81.1 percent of his quick throws while dropping down less than 10 percent on extended throws. A big part what makes the LSU quarterback successful is the power he generates with his feet. The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder is not only able to break through arm tackles in the pocket, but he also generates that driving momentum into his downfield passes.
This spring, Jones has worked to develop similar explosiveness in his lower body, religiously following the weight program sent to him by Alabama strength and conditioning coaches David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea. So far, the results have been noticeable.
“He has done an amazing job of every single day trying to replicate what he was doing at Alabama,” said Denny Thompson, the owner of 6 Points, a quarterback training facility in Jacksonville. “Some of our guys don’t look quite as chiseled as when they first walked in a month ago. Mac’s actually gotten stronger. He is very disciplined about his workouts Alabama sent him. He looks fantastic.”
Thompson, who has been working Jones this offseason, describes the quarterback as “twitchy” and says his athleticism is often underrated. The two have been working on harnessing the right-hander’s added lower-body strength and translating it into big plays. The biggest focus has been on footwork in order to position Jones for throws after evading tackles.
While he isn’t thought of as a scrambler, Jones also has the ability to make plays with his feet. A former Wing-T quarterback in high school, he flashed that mobility during last season’s Iron Bowl, ducking past defenders before dashing 18 yards down the field on a fourth-and-7 to extend Alabama’s final drive.
“That’s kind of the way the offense is going now,” said former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, who now serves as color analyst for Crimson Tide football games. “You want a quarterback who, you don’t have to be running a 4.5, but you’ve got to break arm tackles and know when to pull it down and how it works for the whole scheme of the offense.
“I think Joe Burrow would be a pretty good one to look and see how to do it. Joe didn’t have blazing breakaway speed. But knowing it’s two-man coverage and all the corners have their back turned to you, that’s a really good time to run. That comes with studying and understanding the game, which it sound like Mac is trying to do.”
The “real deal”
Working with Thompson this spring, Jones has been able to train alongside several other elite talents from the Jacksonville area. The list includes Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs and Raiders quarterback Nathan Peterman as well as several notable college quarterbacks such as Kentucky’s Joey Gatewood and Georgia freshman Carson Beck. Jones has also had the opportunity to throw to Falcons tight end Haden Hurts, Jaguars tight end James O’Shaughnessy and Bears receiver Javon Wims.
While COVID-19 restrictions have limited much of the on-field training, Thompson said he’s focused on replacing the learning perspective that his quarterbacks might have lost out on without spring camp. Before social distancing was heightened, Jones participated in quarterback room meetings breaking down reads and progressions with other top-level quarterbacks.
“Hearing Mac going through not even his concepts but theirs, the questions he was asking and the suggestions he was making — he just gets it,” Thompson said. “He’s a really smart man, not just in the football field but in every aspect. He’s one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve had the opportunity to be around. He does things that I see our NFL guys doing.”
Thompson compares Jones to Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Redskins quarterback Alex Smith and says he can see the redshirt junior developing into a potential first- or second-round pick after the coming season.
Jones averaged 293 passing yards, 3.25 touchdowns and 0.5 interceptions per start last season. If translated over a 13-game season, those averages would total 3,809 yards, 42 touchdowns and six interceptions. For perspective, former Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who was selected No. 6 overall by the Los Angeles Chargers in last week’s NFL draft, threw for 3,471 yards and 32 touchdowns with six interceptions last season.
“On more than one occasion, it’s been brought up like, 'Dang, Mac’s the real deal,’” Thompson recalled. “I feel like his arm strength over the course of the last month has gotten a lot better. Mechanically, he’s improved a lot… There have been days when he has come in and thrown, and my mouth has just been wide open in amazement of ‘Holy cow, this kid can really spin it.’ This kid is special, special. I think he’s going to have a massive year at Alabama this year.”
Thompson isn’t the only one with that feeling, either. Jones is currently listed at 25-1 odds to win next season’s Heisman Trophy award. The redshirt junior returns with two of the nation’s top receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle as well as four of the five starting linemen from a line that finished as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award last season.
“He said this multiple times: ‘I don’t have to go crazy. I’ve just have to get the ball to these guys. We’re so talented, we just got to get to the ball to our talent, and they’ll do the rest,’” Thompson recalled. “I think his biggest attribute is he’s not going to try and do too much. He knows what they have at Alabama, and he loves Alabama. He’s going to do everything he can do to help them win.”
“He’s a warrior”
A picture of Jones went viral over social media this offseason. It shows the quarterback looking up, blood still dripping from his nose all the way down to his shirt, while a determined stare lingered on his face. Moments before, Jones had taken a blow to the face during Alabama’s 4th Quarter Program. Despite his condition, he refused to leave until his drills were finished.
“He’s a warrior,” former Alabama walk-on receiver Mac Hereford said. “He just keeps grinding and grinding. He works pretty dang hard. I don’t know of many quarterbacks who throw as much as Mac Jones does.
“In the offseason I’d go catch for him, and he’d text me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. Most people are going out on a Saturday night, and me and Mac are just out there throwing the football.”
Hereford remembers multiple impromptu throwing sessions with Jones, including one in December immediately following Alabama’s team banquet. Still dressed in suits coming off the bus, Jones turned to his teammate and asked if he minded getting in a few quick throws.
Figuring the session would be brief, Hereford decided to remain in his dress clothes inside of Alabama's practice facility.
“He had actually changed, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t have my clothes in the facility,” Hereford recalled. “I was in a suit catching a few balls, and Mac asked if I could run a route.”
Of course, as is the norm with Jones, one route soon led to another, and another.
“It started getting pretty hot, so I’m really sweating after a while,” Hereford said. “I eventually had to start stripping down. By the end of it, I’m literally down to my boxers catching passes from him barefoot inside of the facility.”
Moments like that were nothing new for Hereford. He’s even seen Jones bring pads and his old high school helmet to a throwing session when Alabama had locked away the team’s gear. The intense work ethic is why Hereford believes Jones was able to earn the trust of the team so quickly after filling in for injured starter Tua Tagovailoa last season.
“You had this great quarterback that goes down, there’s going to be some hesitation for the next guy,” Hereford said. “But Mac had been there and he always battled. People saw that, and they naturally respected him. I really think he really started to take that leadership role. In conditioning and 4th Quarter, he was beginning to completely win over the team in the way of a leader.”
Tagovailoa was selected No. 5 overall by the Miami Dolphins in last week’s NFL draft, becoming the first Alabama quarterback taken in the first round since Richard Todd in 1976.
Before Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide’s last notable draftee at quarterback was Brodie Croyle, who was selected in the third round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006. Wilson took over for Croyle at Alabama where he served as the Crimson Tide’s starter the next three seasons.
“I never really thought about following Brodie,” Wilson said. “For me, it was just about continuing what has been done before me. It’s kind of my job to keep it going, to keep what we’ve built moving forward. I’m sure for Mac it’s probably the same way.”
With the absence of spring camp, Jones will have to wait until the fall to solidify his starting spot as he battles with five-star freshman Bryce Young and sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa for the role. As for now, he has no plans of slowing down.
“I’ve never seen someone just grind, grind, grind the way he does,” Hereford said. “He’s on it all the time. He’s just a guy who just puts his head down and keeps working.”