Into the Spiral: How Jacksonville’s Mac Jones Rose to the Top of the NFL Draft

10/10/20 MFB Alabama vs Ole Miss Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) Photo by Kent Gidley

The Bolles graduate, and former Alabama Quarterback, is a sought after player in the draft.

Holly McCorkle Jones met Gordon Jones on her first day at her new job at a downtown Jacksonville law office. However, it wasn’t the usual story of falling in love at the office. 

“It was my first job out of law school,” she described. “They had the big dark doors, and they were showing me my office and said, ‘You’ve met everyone at the firm except Gordon Jones.’” 

        As a prudent new associate, Holly had done her homework. She replied, “You mean the little guy from Japan?” She had studied all of the lawyer’s profiles ahead of her first day of work, but the online directory implanted a vision of someone entirely different. Indeed, Gordon was born in Sendai, Japan. Indeed, he played professional tennis. However, she described being “mortified” as Gordon appeared before her as a larger-than-life Southerner with a booming voice to match his booming 6-foot, 4-inch frame. 

        Gordon Jones describes law as his second career. He received national attention as Sports Illustrated’s “Athlete of the Week” while playing tennis at Flagler College. He had championship success at the NAIA level before moving on to play, and then coach, professionally. For Holly, the law was her first career. Although she played sports growing up, she described herself as, “the least athletic in the Jones family.” They are now both partners in the law firm, Jones & McCorkle.

        Mac is the youngest of three siblings. His sister Sarah Jane was an excellent college athlete and also excelled academically and obtained her MBA. Mac’s brother Will also played college sports and was once soccer player of the year for St. Johns County. Over the years, the trio have wreaked havoc, in a good way, on Gordon’s Yukon Denali. He bought it new, and as of our meeting, it had over 310,000 miles on it.

        According to Holly, Mac’s sports career started when he was 5 years old playing soccer in Julington Creek where he was far more proficient at scoring than passing. On a team of five young children, Mac stood out—probably too much. He switched to football and grew up with a group of children who all traveled and played together. As Mac grew, so did his proficiency. He was always a quarterback “and always loved it.” 

        Even before stepping foot on the high school campus at The Bolles School, Mac was already on the radar of its legendary coach Corky Rogers, or at least Mac hoped he was. Mac played Pop Warner Youth Football with Rogers’ grandson, Mason, and was coached by Eric Yost, his then son-in-law. Within the football community, Coach Rogers was a legend on the sidelines. He retired as the winningest high school football coach in Florida history and won 10 state titles. Even at 7 or 8 years old, Mac Jones recognized the aura of Coach Rogers.

 

Mac Jones and Corky Rogers

 

        “That’s all he ever wanted to do was play for Corky,” Holly said, “That was his dream, his first dream.” As a Sports Illustrated article noted, even as a child, “Michael McCorkle Jones saw ‘Corky’ in his own name, quite literally. ‘McCorkle’ was Holly’s maiden name. McCorkle. McCork. Cork. Corky.”

        As a child, Mac was larger than most kids his age. His physical development slowed, however, as he entered middle and high school, but his passion for football almost bordered on obsession, especially when it came to his own improvement. From off-season flag football to dartfish training (where coaches and prospects use video and data analysis tools for improving fundamental skills) to regular trips to work with quarterback coaches, Mac prepared his mind while his body caught up.

        Whether it was Darren Slack, Mac’s first quarterback coach, or Joe Dickinson, who has coached Mac since he was 11 or 12-years-old, the trusty Yukon was always ready to take Mac to the smartest person in the room to hone his craft. Mac still consults with Coach Dickinson, a renowned former Division I and NFL coach. At one point during his final season at Alabama, Mac noted speaking with Coach D. “almost every day on the phone.” Dickinson acknowledges Mac’s limitless potential, largely because of his limitless ambition. “I tell him he’s created his own expectation level that’s very high,” Dickinson said.

        The immense passion and training weren’t quite enough to get Mac on the field when he first joined the Bolles varsity football team as an eighth grader, though. “He was 5’ 5” and weighed about 80 pounds,” noted Kevin Fagan, Mac’s quarterback coach. Fortunately, the growth spurt eventually happened, but Mac’s toughness had always outshined any temporary limitations in physical stature. 

        Holly and Gordon said it was a rough time of adjustment for Mac:, “Corky and him kind of battled it out.” Even Rogers’ grandson Mason Yost recognized how hard Rogers was on those he loved. In one article, Yost noted no player took a tongue lashing more than he did, but “Mac was second.” Once given the opportunity on the field, Mac led Bolles to the state regional finals as a junior and the Class 4A title as a senior. To this day, Mac Jones credits that tough love as a reason for his success. 

        In 2016, Mac finished his high school career in what would coincidentally be Coach Rogers last season.  Sadly, Rogers passed away four years later. Mac reflected on some of his parting words to his beloved coach: “I wanted to let him know he was one of the biggest reasons why I am who I am today, and I don’t know if I ever truly told him that. He told me how proud he was of me and that I was his favorite quarterback. That conversation … I’ll never forget that conversation. I wish I could have recorded it.” Prior to Rogers’ passing, Mac told him that he was dedicating the 2020 football season at the University of Alabama—every pass, every touchdown, every win—to him.

        Despite churning out athletes like Chipper Jones, Dee Brown, Ryan Murphy and Hayden Hurst, Coach Rogers was quite “old school” when it came to college recruiting. In fact, college coaches looking to speak with Rogers were often sent a number to an unattended phone in the weight room. The coach’s flip phone was notoriously kept in his car; the battery usually dead. The team had no social media presence, so Gordon set up and ran an unofficial Twitter account for the Bolles football program despite Rogers insisting social media would be the “downfall of society.” Before the collapse of civilization, though, Mac just wanted to go to college on a football scholarship. 

        “The whole recruiting process was changing, the dynamics, around that time,” Gordon reflected. “Schools were identifying kids through camps, Twitter or social media buzz. Mac ended up getting his first offer from ECU [Eastern Carolina University] with some assistance from Coach Dickinson. It went from there. He went to Wake Forest for three consecutive camps. The coach noted he thought Mac was ‘unbelievable’ and had never missed a pass,” but the offer wasn’t timely enough. 

        Coach Shannon Dawson, then offensive coordinator at the University of Kentucky, was one of the first to see the shining star Matt was and expressed unwavering interest in bringing the Jacksonville native to the Bluegrass State. “We liked Coach Dawson. He had a wild open offense. They bonded as people,” Gordon said. “Mac loved Coach Dawson, but once he was fired, we had to think twice about it.” The new coaching staff was different but also appealing. By that time, Gordon said,  “Mac had gotten a bunch of different offers,” though Holly pointed out, “He still liked the SEC [Southeastern Conference].” 

        At the time, he was a three-star recruit who had yet to fully emerge on the national radar. As a result, he had only been offered scholarships from three schools: Kentucky, East Carolina and Mercer University.  On July 27, 2015, he committed to Kentucky and announced it on Twitter: “After a busy summer, I am excited to announce that I have committed to the University of Kentucky! #GoWildcats #BBN”

        But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast.” Mac’s stock as a quarterback recruit was heating up. His rating would increase to four stars, and some argue he was underrated even at that. In total, Mac Jones received scholarship offers from 22 colleges across the country, including Alabama, Arizona State, California, Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Texas A&M, Washington State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers. But it was a change at another college that created a new opportunity for Mac. 

“When [Alabama head coach] Kirby Smart went to Georgia, he took with him Jake Fromm, who was committed to Alabama, which opened up a quarterback position in Tuscaloosa,” Gordon explained. Kentucky Head Coach Nick Saban acknowledged the departure similarly, “We thought [Jake Fromm] was a great player. We had him in camp, and we were excited to have him be a part of our program, but we also understood when Kirby [Smart] went to Georgia and Kirby was recruiting him that there was a chance of that happening.” In a wealth of riches, Saban was consoled by having sophomore Jalen Hurts as the starting quarterback and talented freshman Tua Tagovailoa as a backup.

 

12/12/20 MFB Alabama vs Arkansas
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10)
Photo by Kent Gidley

 

        Regardless, the Fromm switch opened up a vacancy on Alabama’s deep quarterback depth chart. At the same time, however, interest was growing in Mac’s skillset on the West Coast, so he took a trip westward—despite his parents hoping he’d stay closer to home. Holly recounted a call she received as soon as they returned: “We got this call from Alabama: “‘We want to see Mac,’ they said.” Unfortunately, Mac developed an ear infection on the trip and couldn’t get on a plane. 

Meanwhile, Gordon was at a bankruptcy conference in Atlanta, but . it was an opportunity which was too good to refuse. So Holly drove Mac to Atlanta and picked up Gordon at 11 p.m.. They then drove through the night, “so that Mac could throw for Coach Saban Saturday morning.” 

After camp, the Gordons received a coveted message: “Coach Saban wants to see y’all in his office.” However, Holly added, “Mac can’t even hear because his ear was so clogged up.” Mac said Saban spoke with his family for about an hour and a half with Saban “doing most of the talking.”

        At that first meeting, Saban expressed he wanted to see more of Mac, and Alabama gave him an offer. “I was so excited, Holly exclaimed. “When you get in front of Coach Saban, he has all the rings and everything. After we were done and, in the car driving back to Jacksonville, I said was that an offer? Was that an offer? So, we called our contact and confirmed, indeed, it was official! We were very excited.”

        On June 8, 2016, Mac tweeted: “I would like to thank the University of Kentucky for recruiting me; however, an opportunity of a lifetime has presented itself to my family and me. I am happy to say I will continue my football and academic career at the University of Alabama. I am 100 percent committed, Roll Tide!”

        It was a beautiful day on January 18, 2017. There was a clear blue sky. Mac’s final high school football season was complete, and he was simply a studious high school senior awaiting his opportunity to step foot onto a college campus. That day Mac would get a bit of “hall pass” as a very special visitor came to see him on campus.. The visitor didn’t drive down San Jose Boulevard or park in the school visitor parking lot, though. The arrival was so unusual, in fact, someone from the school filmed it.

        Coach Saban and then Offensive Line Coach Brent Key landed a Bell Rotorcraft on the Bolles practice field, helicopter blades spinning and spawning winds of change for the First Coast college football prospect. “People were looking through the woods,” Jones said. “It was kind of a big deal.” But, as anyone who knows Mac will tell you, the  journey to get that helicopter to land started with countless miles on the ground.

        Once together with Saban and Key, Mac said, “Corky [Rogers] pretty much talked the whole time. It was largely about defenses and about Alabama games from the prior season. At one point, it felt like just it was just the two of them with me in the background.” 

“The two defensive guys had to take time comparing notes,” Gordon laughed. Ultimately, Coach Saban and the Jones family went upstairs and talked about Mac’s development. “I’ve been yelled at by two great coaches,” Mac added with a chuckle.

Mac’s high school team helped get him onto Alabama’s team—a powerhouse under Saban,who won six of his seven national championships at Alabama, tying the legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s record. Before Saban arrived in 2007, no Alabama player had ever won the Heisman Trophy. Since then two Alabama players have won, including another First Coast sensation, Derrick Henry, who played running back at Yulee High School. Additionally, Alabama’s last three quarterbacks were Heisman finalists, including Mac. Alabama has also excelled at getting players drafted by the NFL—and keeping them there. 

        The quarterback room at the University of Alabama was as stacked as it ever was when Mac Jones arrived on campus. People may first think of Hurts and Tagovailoa, but it also had 5-star top prospect Blake Barnett at the time. As a red shirt freshman Barnett, who came to Alabama as an Under Armour All-American and possibly the top overall quarterback in the 2015 recruiting class, was Alabama’s opening day starter for the USC game. However, he’d be replaced by true freshman Jalen Hurts a few games later, eventually  transferring out of Alabama’s program mid-season. 

“Mac was aware [of the tight competition ahead of him]),” Holly recalled. “He was underweight and undersized at the time. He knew it was going to take time.” Gordon encouraged his son: “Surround yourself with super successful people because they will help you be super successful. Go there and learn. You’ll get that opportunity as a junior or senior.”

        Holly and Gordon did not miss a game—home or away—whether or not Mac even had a prospect of playing.“There were times we would come up, even when he wasn’t slated to be a starter, and we’d be at the gym at 10 at night at the facility, and he had this whole routine he’d do,” Gordon recalled “He’d set up a net with a bar, so that it was about the height of an outreached defensive lineman, so he could throw passes over the bar and work on trajectory.” It was a dream coming true for both a father and his son.

        “It’s really hard being the backup and awaiting your chance,” Holly explained. “He literally spent every waking hour putting his preparedness into action. He’d go to the film room by himself at 6 a.m.  as a backup. The whole summer they were in lockdown, he was looking at three years of tape. He wasn’t going to lose the job [as starting quarterback for the University of Alabama].”

        Mac’s girlfriend Sophie Scott learned his dedication firsthand. She joked that the couple’s “quality time” often consists of playbook review or various contraptions around the apartment designed to give him the ability to learn and practice around the clock.

“We were having fun while throwing the ball around,” she said. She’d call out plays for Mac to diagram. Projectors and white boards aren’t common in most college apartments, but they are staples in Mac’s life. “I can draw most of the plays at this point,” Sophie laughed. 

        Mac never considered transferring. He felt the hard work would pay off. No one celebrated when Tua got injured, but it certainly created an opportunity for Mac to become the starting quarterback prior to his final season. 

 

10/10/20 MFB Alabama vs Ole Miss
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10)
Photo by Kent Gidley

 

“Tua was a great player and helped me throughout that year,” Mac said. It was a difficult season all around, he added but good practice for what was to come.

        During his final season at the Capstone, Mac progressed reading defenses. At practices, he’d call out the defenses to his offensive teammates. Saban would pull him aside and say, “Mac, you don’t need to tell everybody the defenses. We know you know.” Mac was doing it to be a good teammate; not as a showoff. 

Sophie recalled, “Mac would base how successful he was in a game based on how much he showcased his teammates. He’d actually wake up in the middle of the night and text me at 3 in the morning saying, ‘Oh, my God, I forgot to throw the ball to [Alabama wide receiver Jaylen] Waddle tonight or get him a touchdown,’ and it would literally keep him up at night.” 

        This past year was an unusual school year to say the least, particularly for the athletes. “There were a lot more team meetings this year… from the virus to social justice issues,” Mac recalled. “We never had any fights this year. We were just working together to figure it all out.” On the field, Mac was determined to get better but certainly wanted “to win every game, win every award” possible. 

“A lot of guys came back for their senior year,” Mac said, admitting he was obsessed with making sure they were rewarded and “felt bad” if he didn’t spread the ball around enough. 

“They say a rising tide lifts all ships,” Gordon said, “but there was a tsunami that came into Tuscaloosa.” They had so many players step up, and the result was an undefeated championship season without any weak spots on the schedule. 

        “Well, to me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” Saban said, “No disrespect to any other teams that we had or any championship teams, but this team won 11 SEC games. No other team has done that. They won the SEC, went undefeated in the SEC, then they beat two great teams in the playoff with no break in between.” The record is even more impressive considering they didn’t even play  the conference’s two worst teams, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, that finished 0-9 and South Carolina, respectively. It was an unblemished run which may never occur again. 

Personally, Mac won several d honors in 2020, including the Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and Manning Award. He was also a consensus All-American and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, which went to his teammate wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who he threw all of the passes to. It was an exceptional year for Mac Jones. 

“No matter what Mac needs to do at the next level, he’ll do it,” Gordon Jones said about his son. Yes, that is a father talking, but it’s also a father who has seen his son be underrated his entire life. 

 

About John M. Phillips

october, 2021

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