2/6 (2 TD)
10/12 (4 TD)
19/25 (5 TD)
Outside the Pocket: 1/1
Under Pressure: 7/9 (2 TD, plus 1 throwaway)
Red Zone: 1/1 (TD)
3rd/4th Down: 4/6 (3 conversions, 1 TD)
Forced Adjustments: 0
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 7
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is a more productive passer than Tua Tagovailoa ever was. That is not hyperbole nor an issue of sample size, at least not at this point. Through eight games, Jones has completed 76.2% of his passes for 12.0 yards per attempt, 23 touchdowns, and three interceptions. He also holds a 207.96 passer rating, which is better than either of Tagovailoa’s seasons as a starter (barely).
All of that is true in part because of what Jones did to Auburn on Saturday. The box score was a fiesta once again. On just 26 attempts, Jones earned over 300 yards while scoring five touchdowns. Alabama’s offense was humming.
And in all honesty, it is important to frame it as “the Alabama offense’ rather than Jones himself. Jones is not a bad player, per se, but the amount of help he gets both schematically and from his receiving talent is outrageous. In this game, for example, Jones threw seven passes off of run-pass options, all but one of which were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. He was also largely protected from having to throw towards the sideline, with 20 of his 25 registered attempts coming over the middle of the field (between the painted numbers). That latter trend is not necessarily always present, but Alabama’s offense does generally steer towards having things work between the numbers.
From a talent perspective, well, it’s easy to score touchdowns when Devonta Smith has multiple plays in a game where he does it all by himself. On one deep touchdown, Smith broke free and had nobody within 20 yards of him by the time he caught the ball. In another instance, Smith caught a slant route off a fake screen in which he acted as though he was blocking at first. The entire defense was caught off-guard and Smith took the moment of hesitation to turn on the jets for a 60-some odd yard catch and run score.
Part of the conflict of emotions with Jones’ performance, aside from all the obvious help, is that his processing was a bit of a roller coaster. Jones is not necessarily someone to throw straight at a linebacker like, say, Jordan Love last year, but there are lapses in his play where it feels like he is going through the motions. One 3rd-and-14 on Saturday put that on display.
Right before the snap, Auburn showed five defenders on the line of scrimmage with the strong safety creeping down a smidgen. It’s possible Jones is thinking Auburn could be in a three-deep, three-under zone blitz and wants to check the weak safety to see if he is giving help to the isolated vertical receiver. As soon as the safety bails off the hash, Jones knows he has split safeties. Without considering that it could be Tampa-2 with a “pole runner” at MIKE, Jones just rips it down the seam between the safeties. The strong safety is able to squeeze outside shoulder while the pole runner does a good job playing the low inside shoulder, giving Jones no window to work with.
Had Jones been a tick more patient and used all the information available, he could have known that a pole-running MIKE leaves the strong hook in a bind over the rest of the strong-side combination. The dig / hitch combination (a.k.a. “Spin”) forces the hook player to either sit high and look for the dig behind him or fly down to cover the hitch. Jones may have figured that “gambling” on the hook to come down in order to open up the dig was not worth it, but seeing as 3rd-and-14 is a doomed down and distance anyway, there should be no reason for him to be worried about a bad gamble. This is not a “follow the basic steps, get the ball out” down. It’s a “be a football player” down.
To his credit, Jones’ unwavering process does work out for him plenty, especially in an Alabama offense that always has someone open. He plays unwavered in the pocket so long as he is on the read he needs to be on. Being hit by a pass-rusher or having the pocket close in does not phase him if he is already of the idea that he can get the ball out on time.
Before the snap, Auburn comes out in a two-high shell before their safety to the passing strength creeps down. Jones may assume the safety is buzzing down for a Cover 3 Buzz look, meaning that safety will handle the hook/curl area to that side of the field. As the ball is snapped, the safety starts to gain depth again, leaving just one hook player for the middle of the field as a Drive combination (shallow crosser / in-breaker) and a checkdown RB work into his area. Jones’ first read here is the shallow crosser from the right side, but since Auburn’s flat defender (6) falls off and the hook defender (20) leans his way, Jones knows to come back to the in-breaker. Jones is not bothered by the free rusher or the fact that the ref is in the way of the throw. He sticks in a decent throw under pressure to pick up a nice chunk of yardage and set up an easy second down that opens up the entire playbook.
Processing was not Jones’ only point of question, either. Jones only really has one mode when throwing deep passes: slow. Granted, that can work seeing as how open Alabama’s wide receivers are, but there are a few instances in which Jones would need to deliver a strike to lead the receiver down the field, and he can’t.
Here is an example where Jones would have been better served putting some heat on and leaving this ball further down the field. It seems as though Jones is trying to throw this as a low-arc heater that will drop in right over the receiver’s outside shoulder, but the ball dies out on him. The throw loses its juice about five yards too short. In turn, Alabama’s receiver has to try and turn around for the ball, but Auburn’s defender is trailing this pretty tight and is able to get a hand (and a helmet?) in to break this one up.
To his credit, Jones does have throws like this. Not only is this throw a bit further, but it’s from the opposite hash. Though this ball still doesn’t have much heat, Jones’ intended target has a step of separation. Jones is able to lay the ball right out in front of the receiver’s numbers, resulting in yet another Alabama touchdown.
Though not an outrageous throw, that touchdown is more meant to illustrate that Jones can throw deep. He often has the touch to lead receivers well if they already have a step of separation. The Georgia game, which was a feature in the QB KlassRoom earlier this year, is a good example of that. Alabama’s receivers constantly got a step on Georgia defenders down the field and Jones delivered a relentless barrage of slow, yet accurate deep balls to win the game.
When it comes to fitting tight windows, however, Jones often falls short because he does not really have a fastball. Jones throws a lot of change-ups — good ones, at that — but he needs more in his arsenal to really be considered a top prospect.
To be clear, Jones is not a bad prospect. In fact, it is more than likely that he is still the top prospect after the clear top four of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance. Jones is probably still worth of a top-100 selection, in large part because of how he can execute a system at a base level, remain calm under pressure, and throw with ample accuracy to most sections of the field. The “playmaker” highs required to really put Jones over the top just aren’t there, though, and he is running out of time to prove he has them.