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University of Alabama photo / Alabama redshirt junior quarterback Mac Jones leads the nation in passing efficiency and is coming off three consecutive 400-yard performances entering this week's game at Tennessee.

Kentucky completed more than 81% of its passes during last Saturday's 34-7 humbling of Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium, averaging 8.2 yards per completion.

The Volunteers will face the nation's top statistical quarterback this week when No. 2 Alabama arrives along with Mac Jones. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound redshirt junior from Jacksonville, Florida, is completing 78.3% of his passes this season, with many of his attempts not nearly as conservative as what the Wildcats displayed.

Jones is averaging a whopping 16.9 yards per completion, with his 12 touchdown tosses averaging an eye-popping 37.3 yards.

"Mac was the scout-team quarterback when I was the defensive coordinator there," Tennessee third-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week. "When you look at how much he's improved in four years, it's really interesting. When he was a scout-team quarterback compared to four years later — it just shows you over time when you're in the same system you can continue to develop. He's really done a nice job doing that.

"He came in last year and played well, and he's playing at a really high level right now with a lot of confidence."

Tua Tagovailoa's high-ankle sprain resulted in Jones getting thrust into last year's Alabama-Tennessee game in Tuscaloosa midway through the second quarter and the Crimson Tide leading 21-10. Jones was essentially given the task of maintaining the lead, with his modest, 6-of-11, 72-yard stat line aiding the running game and Alabama's defensive stiffening in the eventual 35-13 triumph.

Jones would earn his first career start the following week against visiting Arkansas and was noticeably more comfortable, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-7 shellacking. He was prepared when Tagovailoa was lost for the season with a dislocated hip at Mississippi State and has absolutely flourished this year, completing 90 of 115 passes for 1,518 yards.

Having already become the first quarterback in Alabama history to assemble consecutive 400-yard passing games with 435 against Texas A&M and 417 at Ole Miss, Jones collected another 417 in last week's 41-24 thumping of Georgia to extend his school mark. His efficiency rating of 220.1 is on pace to set an NCAA single-season standard.

"If we just keep winning, everyone will get stats," Jones said. "I just enjoy winning."

Jones will make just his ninth career start this Saturday, when he will encounter a Tennessee defense that has struggled defending the middle of the field since South Carolina's Shi Smith racked up 10 receptions for 140 yards in the Sept. 26 opener.

"I think we have to do a better job getting a push up front," Pruitt said. "When you throw the ball short over the middle, it usually has to go through the five offensive linemen and four defensive linemen. We've got to do a better job of getting a push in the pocket. We've got to get our hands up, and we've got to have tighter coverage whether we are playing them inside out or outside in. We've got to do a better job disguising so they don't know that it's there.

"With every coverage, there is a weakness, and you have to be able to hide the weakness."

Jones has the nation's top receiving trio of DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and John Metchie to work with and got tight end Miller Forristall more involved against the Bulldogs as well. He has targeted Smith 27 times in the last two games and connected on 24 of those occasions.

"He's a (Michael) Jordan-level competitor," Jones said of Smith. "If you get him the ball, he'll make the play."

Mays speaks out

Tennessee junior offensive lineman Cade Mays was made available to the media Tuesday for the first time since transferring from Georgia in January and getting cleared first by the NCAA and then the Southeastern Conference.

A lawyer hired by the Mays family in the transfer process described Georgia as a "toxic" environment for the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder, but Mays didn't elaborate on what would have led to such a description.

"It wasn't the right environment for me," Mays said. "I made some great memories there and have friends for life down there. It just wasn't the right environment for me, so I transferred here and am happy where I am."

Mays returned to Athens on Oct. 10 and was on the losing end of a 44-21 decision against the Bulldogs.

"Those guys are still some of my best friends, and we talk to this day," he said. "Those relationships really never change, and being able to compete against them was like practice."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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