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How Alabama's Mac Jones grew into Heisman finalist with help of Oklahoma QB coach Joe Dickinson: 'I knew he had staying power'

Quarterbacks coach Joe Dickinson, right, poses with Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, middle, and David Cornwell in May. Jones has been coached since he was young by Dickinson. [Photo provided]
Quarterbacks coach Joe Dickinson, right, poses with Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, middle, and David Cornwell in May. Jones has been coached since he was young by Dickinson. [Photo provided]

Sitting inside a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, lunch spot 10 months ago, Joe Dickinson broke everything down for his latest protege Mac Jones.

Alabama’s quarterback had plenty of receiving weapons — DeVonta Smith, John Metchie and Jaylen Waddle among others — who could make his life easier.

The Crimson Tide had a strong running back in Najee Harris.

Then Dickinson said something intriguing for a February afternoon. If Jones wasn’t careful, he could fool around and win the Heisman Trophy.

Jones, in his bashful and humble manner, laughed it off. Surely, it was a joke.

But it wasn’t.

“I know what kind of level you can play at and I know your accuracy level,” Dickinson told Jones.

Turns out, Dickinson’s message was prophetic.

Jones is nearing the end of a breakout season. He led No. 1-ranked Alabama to the College Football Playoff, which begins 3 p.m. Friday when the Crimson Tide faces Notre Dame in AT&T Stadium. Jones is also a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, which will be announced virtually Tuesday night.

And Dickinson — a renowned quarterbacks coach and former Sooners offensive coordinator — had a huge hand in Jones’ development.

“We talk almost every day on the phone,” Jones told the Tuscaloosa News on Tuesday. “We're texting and he's just a guy that he can always help me out if I need something with my mechanics or anything with the scheme that we're doing, just because he's been around football for a long time. And he's seen a lot of good players and a lot of good coaching.”

Dickinson — known as “Coach D” by Jones — first met Jones as a young quarterback attending a DeBartolo Sports Camp in Jacksonville, Florida. Then 11, Jones impressed former Oklahoma State quarterback Daxx Garman enough that Garman called over Dickinson.

At that point, Dickinson was working with college-aged quarterbacks. But something was different about Jones.

He had a tennis build. Jones’ father, Gordon, was a pro tennis player who was in a Wimbledon qualifier. Mac was pretty good at tennis himself.

But he was an even better quarterback.

“I knew he always had the capability,” Dickinson said. “He’s a really talented kid.”

Dickinson and Jones started working more and more together as Jones developed into a strong quarterback at The Bolles School in Jacksonville.

Except Jones was running the Wing-T offense under legendary coach Corky Rogers. There wasn’t much passing involved. Jones even had to wait to become the starter until his junior year.

But Dickinson loved that. Jones paid his dues. He didn’t transfer. He led The Bolles School to the state regional finals as a junior and the Class 4A title as a senior.

“I knew he had staying power, he had a commitment-level power,” Dickinson said. “I’d watch him play and he’d play really good against the high-powered schools in Jacksonville.

“You could see he could play at a high level in high-level games.”

When Jones arrived at Alabama, he joined a roster featuring another Dickinson product — David Cornwell, the former Jones and Norman North star. The two became close.

Jones again waited for his time with the Crimson Tide. He got it last season when Tua Tagovailoa suffered an injury. Jones led Alabama in the final three games, shining for all but two bad throws in the loss to rival Auburn. They were pick-sixes.

“That’s all everybody wanted to remember was two pick-sixes against Auburn,” Dickinson said. “It’s like playing at Oklahoma, right? You can be really good, but if you mess up against Texas you’re a ‘Texas loser,’ right?”

Jones wanted to only move forward this offseason and win the starting job.

So, he called Dickinson in February with a request. Jones had focused on schemes and not necessarily technique with Alabama’s coaching staff. He wanted a refresher on deep-ball techniques from Dickinson.

“Just getting kind of that third-party outside source I can have as like a family member type person,” Jones said, “and Coach D has been really cool.”

Dickinson — who limits his travel following a devastating auto crash 3½ years ago — left his Oklahoma home and headed to Alabama in February. They spent a few days working on Jones’ mechanics. Jones threw to the Crimson Tide’s talented receivers.

Dickinson knew immediately a special season was possible.

Then that was confirmed when Dickinson made the short trip to Arkansas to see Jones play this season. Dickinson sat in the stands and saw Jones have an efficient day. He’s watched every game this season, seeing Jones complete 29 of 51 passes of 20 or more yards for 1,225 yards and 15 touchdowns.

And though Dickinson won’t make the trip to Arlington, Texas, on Friday, he’ll watch knowing he played a significant part in developing a Heisman Trophy finalist.

“Whatever minimal part you had to help him, you’re proud of that,” Dickinson said. “You gotta count your successes as you go in this business. With that being said, I’m very proud of him.

“I knew he could do it. I mean, you gotta do it. Now he’s done it. Now everybody’s expecting big things all the time.

“I tell him he’s created his own expectation level that’s very high.”

Jacob Unruh

Jacob Unruh is a graduate of Northeastern State University. He was born in Cherokee and raised near Vera where he attended Caney Valley High School.During his tenure at NSU, Unruh wrote for The Northeastern (NSU's student newspaper), the... Read more ›