Alabama's Jalen Hurts defying his age with playoff run
It's easy to appraise Jalen Hurts' by the numbers: The yards, the touchdowns and the wins.
But perhaps the most notable number is his age, 18. Top-ranked Alabama's freshman quarterback has shown poise beyond his years under the pressure of leading the Crimson Tide to a Southeastern Conference title and playoff berth.
Alabama's offensive leader is just a teenager from Texas who hadn't let a team to a championship since he was an 8-year-old on the East Houston Aggies. He hasn't often looked like an 18-year-old on the field.
''I'm a firm believer in age being nothing but a number,'' Hurts said. ''And I feel like if you step up to any situation and you're able to play your game, be confident, have the poise you need to have, you'll be all right.''
Hurts is trying to become only the second true freshman quarterback to lead a major college team to a national title. Oklahoma's Jamelle Holloway replaced an injured Troy Aikman in 1985 and led the Sooners to eight straight wins.
So far, Hurts is a perfect 12-0 as a starter since claiming the job after the opener and has been named SEC offensive player of the year. His journey to a College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with No. 4 Washington on Dec. 31 hasn't been all paved in crimson glory, but more a season-long rubber band-like grind of snapping back from negative plays, like a fumble that Mississippi returned for a touchdown. Big plays often follow the bad ones.
Hurts has gotten better later in games, including in the second half of the Iron Bowl against Auburn and the SEC championship game against Florida.
''That's unusual because freshmen are rookies,'' Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said after the SEC championship game in Atlanta. ''What do they do? They usually screw up in the fourth quarter. He's special.''
Of course, Hurts has also had few games that were still undecided in the fourth quarter.
He has of course benefited from a supporting cast full of NFL talent and the nation's best defense, much like `Bama predecessors including Jake Coker, AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy - each of whom led the Tide to national titles.
Hurts arrived in Tuscaloosa in time to play Clemson's Deshaun Watson for the scout team leading up to the national championship game last season. He has been able to escape some of the grind of being quarterback of a national title contender since coach Nick Saban doesn't allow freshmen to talk to reporters during the regular season. So the SEC championship postgame scrum looked like a full-out blitz, with Hurts surrounded by reporters and TV cameras scrambling for his first public comments as `Bama's starter.
He handled it with aplomb and didn't bite when asked to evaluate his season.
''As a team, I think we've done a great job,'' Hurts said, repeating himself when asked a second time.
Being the quarterback of an active dynasty in a state where college football reigns supreme could overwhelm any player, freshman or senior.
''He's handled it extremely well,'' said McElroy, an SEC Network analyst who helped lead the Tide to the 2009 national title. ''Has he been perfect? No. Is there a lot of room for improvement? Absolutely. But given the pressure and the circumstance of playing quarterback at Alabama - as soon as you're named the starter you immediately become one of the most heavily scrutinized people in the entire state.''
Hurts, the son of a high school coach, has put up big numbers along the way, already running for more yards in a season than any other Tide quarterback.
He has rushed for 841 yards and 12 touchdowns, keeping the offense going even when the passing game isn't clicking. He has also completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions.
Hurts has been a better finisher than starter. He has passed for 14 touchdowns and been intercepted just twice in the second half of games, when he's also produced many of his biggest plays. That includes a 21-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run in a 10-0 win at LSU in a game that was otherwise dominated by the defenses.
''I think people were on him a little bit after the LSU game and I just told him, `Man, Jalen, you just went into Tiger Stadium at night in an Alabama-LSU game and won and really made the one significant play on offense,''' Kiffin said. ''He's a special player.''
Hurts credits his father and prep coach, Averion, for helping him be ready to handle the challenges and successes at Alabama. Hurts also absorbed lessons by watching his older brother Averion Jr. - a quarterback at Texas Southern - learn the hard way.
''All the butt-chewings he got, I learned from those,'' he said. ''Life is all about learning.''
Then he went on to play for another demanding coach in Saban, who has regularly held one-on-one Sunday film sessions with his quarterback.
Hurts said not even Saban's chewing-outs can match those coming from his father.
''There ain't nothing like getting a butt-chewing from your blood,'' he said.
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