TUSCALOOSA — As Alabama’s Jared Mayden hauled in the fluttering pass from Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee in the closing minutes of Saturday’s 59-31 win, it was almost as if a weight had been lifted of the senior safety’s shoulders.
After four years of hearing all about how it felt when many of the other Alabama defensive backs recorded their first career interceptions, the senior safety was finally able to bring something to the table after his fourth -quarter interception.
“It felt great to finally get that monkey off my back,” Mayden said Tuesday. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do so it felt great.”
At least part of the relief is no long having to be subjugated to jokes about his lack of interceptions from his veteran teammates.
“I know (Trevon) Diggs and X (Xavier McKinney) have been on me and Shyheim (Carter) too,” Mayden said. “I feel like I was the oldest person that was here without a pick. Now I finally got it so now all the jokes they’ve calmed down.”
After seeing action in just 11 games his first two seasons, Mayden appeared in 13 games as a key reserve last season, often filling in as the team’s strong safety on dime packages.
This year he’s been a starter at free safety, effectively taking over a role filled by junior Deionte Thompson, who surprisingly left early for the NFL after last season.
Now, Mayden is tied for second on the team with 15 solo tackles and ranks sixth with 20 total tackles, one pass breakup, one hurry and last Saturday’s interception.
“The season is going good, (but I’m) just still trying to figure everything that it takes to be a dominant starter on this team,” Mayden said. “I’m still learning, still getting better at it. It just makes it easy with everybody around me, everybody being positive. Just still trying to grow. I can’t be satisfied with where I’m at. Just keep getting better.”
That continues this week as the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 SEC) has the first of its two open weeks
At the start of each off week, Alabama’s coaches sit down with each player individually and provide honest evaluations of their play to that point in the season and several areas for improvement.
For Mayden, a self-acknowledged introvert, that starts with better on-field communication, being more vocal with his teammates, and refining his open-field tackling.
“Trying to get the call echoed across the board. I’m not really too much of a talkative guy, so trying to break through that barrier myself,” Mayden said. “Also I still need to continue to work on my tackling, my tackling on the perimeter coming down, playing safety, in the SEC at that.”
Providing more physicality from the free safety position is especially important, and something coaches have been preaching to Mayden since he earned a starting spot.
“Jared is a very athletic guy. He was a corner before he became a safety, so he’s a good cover guy. He’s got good range in the deep part of the field,” head coach Nick Saban said last week. “And when he’s played physical and played with good toughness, he’s been a good player for us. That’s what we continue to emphasize with him: ‘Because you’re a safety now, you’re going to have more opportunities to present that.’ And he has done that, for the most part, and that’s something that we want him to continue to focus on.”
Perimeter tackling, especially from the secondary, was a sore spot last weekend against Ole Miss, as dual-threat Rebels quarterback John Rhys Plumlee ate up Alabama’s defense with 109 rushing yards, much of it coming on designed quarterback runs around the edges that required a defensive back to make a one-on-one tackle in space.
Mayden had an opportunity to tackle Ole Miss’ Jerrion Ealy around the goal line but the Rebels’ running back barreled through him and into the end zone for a 9-yard score midway through the third quarter.
So, while pulling in his first career interception was rewarding, Mayden understands there are other parts of his game in need of work before Alabama gets into the meat of its conference schedule over the next two months.
“There’s a lot of big ‘backs out there,” Mayden said. “I need to make sure I’m not just going up and hitting guys as hard as I can. I need to be able to hit and wrap up. Wrapping up is definitely something that’s on my focus.”