MOBILE — After Michigan’s final pass was intercepted by Josh Jobe, Jared Mayden looked up at University of Alabama fans in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, celebrating a 35-16 Citrus Bowl win. He took mental snapshots of the confetti flying over Nick Saban as he threw oranges into the crowd.

“That meant everything to me,” Mayden said. “I just took time to soak all that in.”

Mayden’s UA finale was a celebratory one, but the season that preceded it is a complicated story. The safety used his senior season to propel himself individually to heights he previously thought impossible, even if that season was marred with team goals unrealized. While in Mobile for the Senior Bowl, Mayden relived that senior season: the individual successes, the team failures and the 2020 season that it set up.

“If you would’ve told me at the beginning of my senior year that I’d be invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl — have an opportunity to play with the best players, scouts everywhere, under the microscope — I would’ve told you you’re lying,” Mayden said. “I’m just trying to win a spot, get better each day so I can win a spot.”

That disbelief was rooted in the first three years of Mayden’s UA career, defined by infrequent playing time: zero starts and just 23 tackles in the snaps he got. His senior season was his opportunity and one he did not miss: he was a fixture as one of UA’s starting deep safeties, missing only the Arkansas game with a groin injury. He led the team in interceptions with four, two of them coming on Senior Day against Western Carolina, and was fifth on the team with 59 tackles. He rose to big occasions: 11 tackles against LSU and his lone tackle for a loss coming in the Iron Bowl.

Yet, Mayden was part of a defense that fell short of UA’s typical standards. It was the only UA defense of the decade to allow 40 or more points twice in the regular season, and it was one of just four defenses in the decade to finish outside of the top 10 nationally in yards per play allowed.

It’s not fair to pin the defensive shortcomings on Mayden — UA’s pass defense did rank third in yards per attempt allowed, after all — but that doesn’t make the 10-2 regular season and Citrus Bowl appearance any easier for Mayden to swallow.

“No. Not at all. I do enjoy the win but at the same time, no, because to me that game was not cool,” Mayden said. “If I sit here and say, ‘It’s all right, it didn’t hurt, I still don’t think about it,’ and somebody from Alabama reads it and says, ‘Okay, Jared says it’s cool,’ but nothing’s cool about the Citrus Bowl. I’m glad we won, but the end of the day, but that wasn’t cool. Our goal every year is to play for championships.

“I enjoyed it, but it still hurts to this day.”

If all goes according to plan, that won’t be Mayden’s last football.

Mayden’s week in Mobile for the Senior Bowl was an opportunity for him on many levels, the most important of which being related to versatility.

“Position-wise, I’m not really doing anything that I haven’t done,” Mayden said. “I played corner at Alabama, I played Star, I played safety. I’m really just doing everything I’ve been doing at Alabama.

“From a football sense, as far as plays go, it’s really less than what we do at Alabama. It’s less complicated; they just want everybody to come out here and play fast, put in some basic stuff that your probably should know.”

Mayden said by Wednesday he had probably met with every NFL franchise at least once, and a common question was what position was most comfortable for him. He told them he saw himself as a slot corner that could transition to safety after a couple of seasons. It’s been a couple of years since Mayden played cornerback, and it took him Tuesday’s practice to get comfortable with the technique. He got more reps on Wednesday and felt much better with it.

While Mayden works his way toward a NFL roster spot, the next generation of UA defensive backs will be forced to replace him and two other veteran safeties, Shyheim Carter at Star and Xavier McKinney at safety/Money. Jordan Battle saw time alongside Mayden in Dime packages, when McKinney would move to Money, and Daniel Wright saw some rotational reps, as well.

With Mayden and Carter being seniors in 2019 and McKinney being an attractive NFL Draft prospect, the possibility of UA having to replace all three was a very real one. That is now a reality, and one Mayden tried to prepare the next generation for.

“We told them that every day at practice, from the beginning of the season to the end,” Mayden said. “Y’all can’t just sit back and be like, ‘Okay, they got it in and we’re just gonna pick it up in the spring.’ You can’t think like that, because before you know your time is gonna be here and you’re gonna be behind, and they’re gonna bring in a freshman and they’re gonna put him ahead of you. We always told them to be ready for your time.

“Jordan’s a great talent, he’s just gotta keep his head on straight and get in the playbook. (Wright)’s going to have to step into a leadership role because he’s gonna be the oldest DB there. (DeMarcco Hellams) at Money, if he wins that job. Patrick (Surtain II)’s going to be more of a leader, Joshua (Robinson)’s coming out of his shell. I’m eager to see what the defense is going to look like this year.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson

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