The wait for Jared Mayden’s first career interception was worth it, if nothing else for what he was able to do with it after.
Last week Crimson Tide senior was the left deep safety when Ole Miss motioned a slot receiver away from him and a blocking tight end in his direction. Having checked on the outside receiver to his side, Mayden turned his attention to the eyes of Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who was about to unleash a ball to the middle deep third.
It was underthrown, and Mayden caught it with the ease of one of Alabama’s receivers turning an eight-yard slant into a 75-yard touchdown.
Mayden’s return was a little shorter than that, 36 yards, but it was enough to keep him from the vengeance that has been coming his way for years now. Mayden has played in 26 games at Alabama without a pick. He finally got one in the 27th.
“It felt great to finally get that monkey off my back. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do so it felt great,” Mayden said. “I know (cornerback) Trevon Diggs and (safety Xavier McKinney) have been on me and (defensive back) Shyheim (Carter) too. 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.”
The 36-yard return left him too winded to even the score with his teammates. Given Mayden’s career to date, waiting an extra two days to crack his own jokes is no matter.
The senior safety is finally getting his opportunity at consistent playing time, and his first career interception against Ole Miss was a rewarding moment in the young season. He has 20 tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry as Alabama goes into the first of two open weeks this season.
“The season is going good. 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.”
UA coach Nick Saban has a project in mind for Mayden, one that could make him the complete package.
“Jared is a very athletic guy,” Saban said. “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, 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.”
The tackling job of the safety is more important now than it has ever been. Fellow safety McKinney is living proof, coming off of UA’s first 13-tackle game since the 2014 Iron Bowl. The constant open-field threats of modern offenses forces safeties to tackle well to prevent big gains, in addition to defenses living in Nickel and Dime packages forcing safeties to play a bigger role in run defense.
If Mayden grows in that regard, he can make one season as the starter into the productive one he’s been waiting for years to produce.
“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.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson