Mac Jones spent most of his college career at Alabama watching from the sideline — first behind Jalen Hurts and then backing up Tua Tagovailoa.
Hurts was first to join the Crimson Tide program in 2016, followed by Jones and Tagovailoa in 2017. By the time they finished their respective runs in Tuscaloosa, each had been the starter on a national championship team.
For Hurts and Tagovailoa, it was the expected outcome for two highly touted recruits coming out of high school.
For Jones, who had to beat out freshman Bryce Young for the starting job last season on his way to becoming the school’s all-time single-season passing leader and leading Alabama to an undefeated record, it was another example of him exceeding outsiders’ expectations.
Now as Jones and Tagovailoa prepare to matchup for the first time as NFL starters on Sunday, it has cast a new spotlight on the former teammates in their new roles as key pieces of franchises hoping to dethrone the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.
“Looking back on it, it was pretty cool. We were all pretty close. We were there to help each other,” Jones said. “I guess that’s all in the past and we’re all doing our own thing now.”
In Jones’ case, that included beating 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton for the Patriots’ starting job. Bill Belichick’s decision to cut Newton at the end of training camp came as a shock to many around the league.
Jones’ teammates said he enters his first start having won the respect of New England’s locker room with poise and confidence rarely displayed by a rookie.
“I tell him he’s not a rookie. This is his offense and to lead it as such,” Patriots offensive lineman Trent Brown said. “We go as he goes.”
Tagovailoa said Jones’ fast ascension lines up with the potential he saw him display in college.
“Mac is fiercely competitive,” Tagovailoa said. “Mac is a ‘put my head down, I’m going to work and I’m going to do whatever I can, no matter who is on the other side, I’m going to do whatever I can to beat you guys.’”
Both will lead revamped rosters.
The Patriots added two of the top tight ends on the free agent market in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, along with receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Miami returns tight end Mike Gesicki and added playmakers at receiver, including Tagovailoa’s former Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle.
Belichick said it has made Tagovailoa, the first rookie quarterback to win against him since 2013, more formidable.
“Tua is no rookie,” Belichick said. “He’s got a year of experience. We’ve seen him. We played against him, so we’ll deal with him.”
Jones will become the first Patriots rookie quarterback to start the season opener since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. Under Belichick, quarterbacks are 6-0 in their first career starts. Of those, Eric Zeier (Cleveland in 1995) and Jacoby Brissett (2016) made their first career starts during their rookie seasons.
ASSOCIATED PRESS PREVIEW:
MIAMI (10-6) at NEW ENGLAND (7-9)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. EDT, CBS
OPENING LINE: Patriots by 3, according to FanDuel SportsBook
SERIES RECORD: Dolphins lead 57-54
LAST MEETING: Dolphins beat Patriots 22-12 on Dec. 20, 2020 in Miami Gardens, Florida
DOLPHINS OFFENSE: OVERALL (22), RUSH (22), PASS (20), SCORING (15).
DOLPHINS DEFENSE: OVERALL (20), RUSH (16), PASS (23), SCORING (6).
PATRIOTS OFFENSE: OVERALL (27), RUSH (4), PASS (30), SCORING (27)
PATRIOTS DEFENSE: OVERALL (15), RUSH (26), PASS (8), SCORING (7)
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Dolphins plus-9; Patriots plus-3.
DOLPHINS PLAYER TO WATCH: Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa makes his first Week 1 start and completed 20 of 26 passes last season against the Patriots — none of those attempts going for more than 15 yards.
PATRIOTS PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Damien Harris led the Patriots last season with 691 rushing yards and separated himself this preseason as the top option out of the backfield, showing ability to break long runs and move the chains in short yardage. With QB Cam Newton (12 rushing TDs in 2020) no longer around, Harris (two TDs in 2020) will pick up more opportunities in the red zone.
KEY INJURIES: Dolphins LT Austin Jackson was placed on the COVID-19 list earlier this week. … Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is on the physically unable to perform list. He’ll miss at least the first six games.
SERIES NOTES: The teams split two games last season, both winning by exactly 10 points at home: Patriots prevailing 21-11 in Week 1, Dolphins winning 22-12 in Week 15. Those were the first 21-11 and 22-12 games in series history.
STATS AND STUFF: There are seven Alabama players on the rosters, including Tagovailoa and New England QB Mac Jones — who were teammates in Tuscaloosa. … Last season was the first time the Dolphins finished ahead of the Patriots in the division standings since 2000. The teams had identical regular-season records in 2001, 2002 and 2008. … The teams combined for 66 points (33 apiece) in their two meetings last season, the ninth-lowest combined total in the 53 two-game season series between the franchises. … The Dolphins are 29-25-1 in season openers, Patriots are 35-26, 15-2 in their last 17. … Jones will become the first Patriots rookie quarterback to start the season opener since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. … Under Bill Belichick, quarterbacks are 6-0 in their first career starts. Of those, Eric Zeier (Cleveland in 1995) and Jacoby Brissett (2016) made their first career starts during their rookie seasons. … With rookie K Quinn Nordin making the 53-man roster, the Patriots have now had an undrafted free agent make that for 18 consecutive seasons. … CB J.C. Jackson was second in the NFL with a career-high nine INTs in 2020. He is the only player with five or more INTs in each of the past two seasons. … LB Kyle Van Noy had 69 tackles, six sacks and a career-high 10 tackles for a loss in 2020 with the Dolphins and now is back with New England.
FANTASY TIP: Jones will make his NFL debut. Since 1991, according to STATS LLC, there have been 69 quarterbacks whose NFL debuts came in a start. Of those, only 22 had multiple TD passes in those debuts.