By JOHN ZENOR
It’s hard to imagine a much more meteoric rise to Heisman Trophy contender than that of Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, until you consider Florida’s Kyle Trask.
Formerly three-star recruits with daunting paths to starting jobs but five-star perseverance and smarts, now they’re perhaps the leading Heisman candidates heading into Saturday night’s Crimson Tide- Gators showdown in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
It’s entirely possible the Heisman could come down to that game in Atlanta. Regardless, Trask and Jones have the kind of stories that bring respect from top-ranked Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, “guys that sort of come up the hard way.”
“I know he’s had a tough road coming up, just like kind of Mac,” Saban said of Trask. “But I have a lot of respect for guys that stick with it, persevere, overcome a lot of adversity, go through a lot of learning and growing pains.
“Then when they get their opportunity, they take advantage of it and do extremely well. Kyle has certainly done that and has had as fine a season as anybody in the country.”
Ditto for Jones.
The numbers are impressive, but don’t tell their whole stories.
Trask has already set the school season record for touchdown passes despite the shortened, SEC-only schedule. Jones’s 27 TD passes ranks third nationally.
Trask is second nationally in passing yards per game (360.3), one spot ahead of Jones at 345.9.
Jones is the nation’s No. 2-rated passer and Trask is fourth.
Trask appreciated the praise coming from Saban.
“It’s pretty special,” he said. “Coming from a legendary coach like him, it’s pretty cool. We’ve got a lot of respect for their football team, as well. We both earned the right to be here with our play this season.”
And both quarterbacks earned their spots among the nation’s best in their first full seasons as starters. Both have been better than just about anybody could have expected.
A career backup, Trask played behind Miami’s D’Eriq King in high school and waited his turn behind Austin Appleby, Luke Del Rio and Feleipe Franks in Gainesville. He finally got his shot in September 2019 after Franks sustained a season-ending ankle injury.
Trask has been nothing short of sensational since, throwing 64 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in 20 starts.
He passed 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel for the school’s single-season touchdown record with No. 40 during a 37-34 loss to LSU, which likely ended any chance the Gators had of playing in the College Football Playoff.
Wuerffel called Trask after the crushing loss and reminded him that the Gators lost their regular-season finale in 1996 before rebounding to win it all.
“If we play at a higher level that I know we can, then I think we can play with anybody in America,” Trask said.
Jones said he looks up to Trask as both a person and a player, especially since both opted to stick it out instead of transferring.
“I definitely have a lot of respect for Kyle, for how he’s handled his situation, too,” the ’Bama quarterback said. “I think all that’s just a personal decision to stay, develop personally.
“That’s kind of how I looked at it. Eventually we both got our chance to help out our teams.”
Jones arrived at Alabama as a skinny 180-pounder and the No. 18 pro style QB, according to the 247Sports composite ratings. More importantly, Jalen Hurts had just been named SEC offensive player of the year as a freshman and five-star prospect Tua Tagovailoa was in the same signing class. Both are now starting games in the NFL.
His shot came after Hurts transferred to Oklahoma and Tagovailoa sustained a hip injury late last season. Jones had three straight 400-yard passing games early this season, proving himself a worthy successor and then some.
“He’s a guy that has had a great year,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Very similar to Kyle. Does a great job managing their offense, distributing the ball to all the different playmakers. Getting them in the right place at the right time. Taking what the defense gives him.”
The results for both have been terrific.
____ AP Sports Writer Mark Long contributed to this report.