Crouching beside the San Jose River, just south of Jacksonville, Florida, is a prestigious institution with a prestigious-sounding name. The Bolles School is a college preparatory leviathan sprawled out over 4 campuses in the Jacksonville metro area and offering classes from pre-K to 12th grade. Grades 9-12 at Bolles are referred to as the “Upper School,” where learning is framed by picturesque Spanish-themed architecture: arched courtyards and buildings with bell towers and red-tiled roofs. A factory for future world-changers, the school chugs out around 200 graduates per year in a private school setting, but as one local news outlet suggested, “there’s nothing private about the success at Bolles.” ACT scores average out at 27; SAT’s nearly 1300. Her list of distinguished alumni include former Atlanta Braves third baseman and MLB Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, former NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion Dee Brown, former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, more than a handful of Olympic swimmers, and, last but not least, the starting quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Mac Jones.

It’s important to note the environment that shaped Jones as he suits up for the most important game of his life this weekend in Auburn, Alabama. Jones did not come to Alabama as the pool hall hustler wearing a zoot suit with a toothpick dangling from of his mouth, a la Joe Namath. He didn’t arrive a product of the rough-and-tumble inner city, nor a school with loosey-goosey academics and a pedestrian athletic department. In contrast, he came from a place with excellence oozing out of its pores. Describing this dynamic, Matt Morris, athletic director at Bolles, says, “You are going to school around very competitive people in everything they do.”

Morris admits there wasn’t a great deal of fanfare surrounding Jones’ signing with Alabama in 2017, primarily because the school reserves one day to recognize scholarships in the collective, and there were dozens of student-athletes moving on to equally impressive places. This, of course, was not to diminish Mac’s accomplishments or how proud the school has become of him, but when you are side-by-side with future All-Americans across many sports, it’s not your typical high school setting — and it’s meant to be that way. (Morris does admit, however, there was a bit of fanfare when Nick Saban’s helicopter arrived on campus the day Saban came to recruit Mac to Alabama.)

Forasmuch academic muscle as The Bolles School reflects, the school is equally as strong on the athletic front. Bolles’ commitment to academic excellence was mirrored on the gridiron when Corky Rogers was hired as the head football coach in 1989. Rogers was already a local coaching legend, having led Robert E. Lee High School to 10 consecutive district titles before taking the helm at Bolles. Previous to his coaching career, a pair of coaching legends in their own right had enriched the football acumen of Rogers, namely Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech and Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts. Playing for those two men helped Rogers shape a program philosophy that he describes as “very strict” and he doesn’t mince words on how difficult it could be to play under him.

“I was brutal on quarterbacks,” Rogers told SDS. “Brutal.”

Since Rogers’ own grandson was just a year younger than Mac Jones, Rogers watched Mac grow from a short, skinny kid in Pop Warner football to a tall, skinny kid at Bolles. From almost the beginning, Rogers knew the arm was there — “he has always been able to throw the football” — but what Rogers questioned was his body. “His body did not look like he would be able to compete as well as he is competing,” Rogers says. “My concern is whether his body would be able to hold up in the SEC.”

A veteran of over 5 decades of coaching, Rogers was well versed in recognizing talent, but what solidified Mac’s ability to move on to the next level, at least in Rogers’s mind, was his participation in the 2016 Elite 11 quarterback competition held at Redondo Beach, California. “(Mac) competed out there and did very, very well,” Rogers said. “He came back before his senior year and we sat down and went over what he had done well and what he had not done well. What passes he actually liked and I doctored our offense to go around it. When I knew he competed against that level, I thought that he had the talent.”

Summer combines that year elevated Jones’s stock as much as any other recruit in the country. Early on, he had committed to the University of Kentucky, but flipped his Lexington pledge as interest continued to file in from all directions — including Tuscaloosa. Soon Jones was on the Alabama campus, working out in front of Nick Saban and then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. And after Saban tendered a scholarship offer, Jones announced his decision on Twitter: “Please respect my decision! I am 100% committed to the University of Alabama. #RollTide #SEC.” He added that a chance to play at Alabama was an “opportunity of a lifetime.”

Just as he had exited Bolles, Jones arrived on the Alabama campus with little fanfare. After redshirting his freshman year, he became 3rd-string quarterback on a fall depth chart that saw Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts engaged in a white-hot saga for QB1. Jones first saw action in the 2018 opener against Louisville in the Camping World Classic held in Orlando, but played sparingly throughout the season as blowouts facilitated. By years’ end, Jones seemed to be on the outside looking in, but when Hurts bolted for Oklahoma this past January, he calmly and quietly slid into the No. 2 spot.

Tagovailoa engulfed the headlines heading into the 2019 season, and began to systematically decimate the competition with his elite aerial show as Jones loomed in the shadows. Things were clicking along for Tua & Co. until the night of Oct. 19, when the whirlwind began. In the 3rd quarter against Tennessee, Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury and Jones subsequently got his first real taste of competitive action. Hurled into the breach of an SEC rivalry game, Jones went 6-for-11 for 72 yards, but the Alabama offense appeared as though it had downshifted from 5th gear to 1st. Bama won anyway, 35-13. As Tua mended post-surgery, Mac filled in admirably the next week against Arkansas in a 48-7 rout. But after a bye week, it was back to the bench for Mac against LSU in the 46-41 thriller. The following week against Mississippi State, Tua suffered his horrific hip injury and Jones was again back at the controls. Now with Tagovailoa done for the year (and possibly forever on the college level), the job is Mac’s to lose.

Jones has already drawn a great deal of criticism and the hard juxtaposition made between a Tua-led Alabama and a Mac Jones-led one. Recently, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, normally a pro-Bama advocate, went rogue on the show First Take. “I don’t want to see no scrubs in college football!” Smith thundered. He then went on to say, “With all due respect, I don’t want to see Mac Jones (emphasis) playing for a national championship of the College Football Playoff!”

Other commentators have been less emphatic but equally critical.

But perhaps the categorization of Jones as the archetype of backup quarterbacks — you know, the goofy former walk-on who just recently got scholarshipped — is a bit unfounded. No, he’s not Trevor Lawrence (as Smith pointed out in the First Take diatribe), but Jones did outperform the Clemson quarterback in a Rivals Quarterback Challenge in Baltimore before his senior year at Bolles. Not to mention, 24 teams — including Arizona State, Baylor, Illinois, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M — would have liked to have him ink with their program out of high school. Some recruiting services were particularly high on him after his combine work, rating him the No. 14 pro-style passer in the country. (For what it’s worth, Tanner Morgan, who is leading Minnesota’s Playoff push, was No. 44.)

Pundits have drawn conclusions about Jones based on a small sample size. His 18-for-22 performance against Arkansas beckoned a collective exhale from Alabama nation, but now that the biggest game of the year is approaching, many are wondering if the stage has suddenly gotten too big for Jones. Without question, he will be tested against the stingiest front seven in all of football, and this ain’t patsy Arkansas.

Rogers believes that anyone who is hanging their hat solely on Jones to shepherd Alabama to the Promised Land is putting an awful lot on his shoulders, but he has confidence in his former quarterback’s ability to thrive in a hostile venue. “I can promise you one thing,” Rogers says, “he’s not going to go in and choke. He will not do that. He’s never done that in his life. I’ve seen him make mistakes — the good, the bad. He’s always been very competitive. He does a wonderful job of reading defenses. He knows where to go with the football. And the more he plays, I think you are going to see him improve. I really think he’s going to make a good showing for himself, but I think more than anything the team is going to come away feeling he’s doing his very best.”

Admittedly, Jones needs to improve his overall physical strength, but critics quick to point to Jones’s flimsy frame as a reason to doubt his ability forget that Tom Brady at a svelte 6-4 is not exactly Lou Ferrigno in the muscle department (no one is suggesting Mac Jones is anywhere close to the quarterback Tom Brady is).

One thing has always been the case, however: Jones can throw the ball. “Even when he was a smaller kid, he could always throw the ball,” Morris said. “He threw a nice ball, a tight spiral, very accurate, and as he got bigger, he kept that.”

Morris adds that Jones’ skill set in high school was at “a very, very high level.” Jones led Bolles to the Class 4A state championship game in 2016.

Which begs the question, “Why is everyone so critical of him now?” Given his history and his ability to thrive in one of the best high school programs in the country, under two of the best coaches in the country in Saban and Corky Rogers, perhaps it’s a bit unfair to perceive him as the accidental quarterback, similar to the shy high school dork who lucks into a date with the prettiest cheerleader in the school.

And perhaps the better comparison to be made is not between Jones and Tagovailoa, but Jones and previous Alabama quarterbacks throughout the years. In that regard, he wouldn’t be the best, but he certainly wouldn’t be the worst.

In short, Mac Jones is very capable of leading Alabama to victory at Jordan Hare Stadium this Saturday. Actually pulling it off in one of the severest venues in college football is quite another matter.

A Brief History of Iron Bowl Backups

The year was 1993. For only the 2nd time in history, the Iron Bowl was played in Auburn — and it was a good one. Down 14-5 in the 3rd quarter, Auburn faced 4th-and-14 in Alabama territory, but starting quarterback Stan White was lying on a bench on the sideline as team doctors examined his knee. White’s replacement was Patrick Nix, who’d played sparingly across 2 seasons. Operating from the shotgun, Nix received the snap from center and heaved a pass toward the end zone. It was a bit underthrown, so it became a jump ball. Receiver Frank Sanders lept over Alabama’s All-American cornerback Antonio Langham and snatched it out of the air. The score brought Auburn within 2 points. Though Auburn later added another touchdown and a field goal to secure the 22-14 win, the defining moment of this particular Iron Bowl — the one people will remember — was Nix’s 3rd-quarter toss.

Two years later, Alabama’s Freddie Kitchens attempted to exact revenge for the ’93 loss at Jordan-Hare. Replacing starter Brian Burgdorf the week prior, Kitchens threw for 302 yards on 19-of-43 passing, but it was not enough. Auburn, led by a more seasoned Patrick Nix, defeated Alabama 31-27. The Crimson Tide was now winless in Auburn in its first 3 attempts. Said Alabama coach Gene Stallings of this 1995 installment: “I hate that we lost. It gives me a sick feeling. But at the same time, I appreciate what we were able to do under tough, tough circumstances.”

Alabama finally broke the Jordan-Hare curse in 1999, as Shaun Alexander ripped through the Auburn defense in a 28-17 win. Then in 2001, Alabama’s Andrew Zow, replacing an injured Tyler Watts, bombarded Auburn 31-7 in one of the more surprising and lopsided Iron Bowls in recent memory. In Jordan-Hare Stadium, ‘Bama running back Santonio Beard ran all over the Tigers, tilling over 199 yards of turf, and Zow was a masterful 22-of-29 for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Flux defined the next few seasons for Alabama, as Auburn seized this rivalry by the throat. As the 2004 season approached, everyone presumed that Brodie Croyle would be the starter at the end of the year, but an early season injury against Western Carolina created an opportunity for backup Spencer Pennington from Fayette, Alabama. Against Auburn, the Tide charged out to a 6-0 halftime lead on 2 Brian Bostick field goals, but Auburn pushed ahead with a 3rd-quarter charge, spearheaded by running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Pennington could only muster one touchdown — that in the 4th quarter when the game was essentially out of reach — and Auburn walked away with its 3rd consecutive victory over its arch-rival.

If the Iron Bowl has proven anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Backups can win, and don’t be surprised if Mac Jones channels his inner Andrew Zow on Saturday.

Player and Coach

In a 30-minute conversation with Corky Rogers, one thing you’ll receive is gut-level honesty. Don’t expect a whole lot of fluff or coachspeak from the guy who’s won 465 games and is the winningest head coach in Florida high school history. Reviewing his thoughts on Mac, Rogers says he was always impressed with his work ethic and dedication to becoming a great quarterback. “He’d run after every practice. He’d run 100s. He would run for conditioning, and I didn’t tell him to do that,” Rogers said.

Was he tough on him, like he was other quarterbacks? Absolutely. Rogers admits he once got onto Mac for the way he celebrated a touchdown. “He was so excited, running down the field that he looked almost uncoordinated in being happy,” Rogers laughs. “I told him, I said, ‘look more like an athlete, please, when you celebrate. Don’t give me this arms flailing that doesn’t even go in rhythm with your body.’”

But you will also detect a bit of sadness in Rogers’s voice. Sadness in a way that a former coach wishes he could reach out to his player, sadness in a way that perhaps he didn’t get as close to Mac as maybe he should have.

Rogers has known Nick Saban for a long, long time and he understands how important the Iron Bowl is to the people of Alabama. He also understands how important this game is for Mac, not only to help his team, but also to gain a bit of personal respect after the loss of Superman. “I think if (Mac) could do an admirable job, not only would it make him proud, it would make an awful lot of Alabama people proud. I want that for him,” he says.

And what would he tell Mac as he prepares to suit up for the Iron Bowl? “I’ve actually been wanting to call him,” Rogers says. “I tell you what I was going to tell him. There are no bigger games than playing at Alabama in college. But you are a lot more prepared than people ever thought of. The way we coached, the way we won a lot of games, the fact that you’ve been in the state championship games … there’s nobody who’s been through more than you’ve been through at this point. Can you make mistakes? Sure, you’re going to. But it’s not bigger than you.”

Then, as the conversation comes to a close, Rogers gets a bit emotional. His love for this skinny kid wearing number 10 for the Crimson Tide, who was thrust into the unexpected limelight, who has to replace Superman, is palpable. Dropping his guard now, Rogers gives a touching request.

“If you talk to Mac, just tell him for me, that, I love him,” he says, his voice trailing off. “He’ll know what I mean.”