Why Alabama's Jalen Hurts might be the next great college quarterback

1:58 | College Football
#DearAndy: How will Clemson replace Deshaun Watson?
Monday March 20th, 2017

The drive that followed got most of the attention—and rightfully so—because it brought Clemson a national title and cemented Deshaun Watson’s legacy as one of college football’s all-time great quarterbacks. But perhaps we should examine the penultimate touchdown drive of the national title game more closely and consider what it might mean for the quarterback who engineered it.

Remember the circumstances? Clemson had just taken a 28–24 lead thanks to a Wayne Gallman touchdown run. Alabama got the ball back on its own 32-yard line with 4:38 remaining. A true freshman quarterback, who had struggled for weeks to throw the ball with any accuracy, had to drive his team 68 yards for a touchdown. Against one of the most ferocious pass rushes in college football. With a playcaller who had been on the job for eight days. In the national title game. 

And he did it.

Forget everything else about Jalen Hurts’s first season as Alabama’s quarterback and just think about that drive. When the Crimson Tide absolutely, positively needed a touchdown against a defense that had shut down the offense for most of the second half on the game’s biggest stage, Hurts delivered that touchdown. That drive ended with him sprinting 30 yards up the middle and into the end zone. And if almost anyone other than Watson had been the other quarterback, Alabama would have another national title.

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Hurts, who will begin his first spring practice as an incumbent starter on Tuesday, might be the most intriguing player in college football. At the start of last season, he looked as if he might make Alabama invincible. By season’s end, his throwing was the Crimson Tide’s biggest liability. But even though Hurts only completed one pass on that last drive—remember, ArDarius Stewart hit O.J. Howard for 24 yards on a trick play—the march down the field showed a spark that suggests Hurts can become exactly what we thought he could be when he first took over the starting job.

When Hurts won the starting job with his performance against USC in Alabama’s season opener, he appeared to be the one who would bridge the gap between the pro style offense Alabama ran for years and the spread-out, read option-heavy up-tempo schemes that had taken over the game. An offense that could combine those schemes would be virtually unstoppable—especially when paired with the kind of talent Alabama can collect. But then something strange happened. Either smart defensive coordinators figured out how to make Hurts uncomfortable as a thrower or Hurts regressed as a passer after hitting a freshman wall or Alabama’s coordinators deliberately played more conservatively with Hurts.

The truth is it probably was a mix of those three factors. Go back and watch Hurts throw in that first game against USC compared to that final game against Clemson. He threw more confidently early in the season than he did late. He also threw for more yards, which would make more sense if Alabama’s schedule included all the cupcakes early. But it didn’t. It was fairly evenly distributed. Through the first seven games, Hurts completed 60% of his passes and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. While the later results would suggest that Hurts’s accuracy fell off, the truth is he completed a higher percentage of passes (62.1) in Alabama’s final eight games. But his per-attempt average dropped to 6.7 yards.

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

 

By that national title game, Alabama had become more of a horizontal passing team. Steve Sarkisian—the offensive coordinator for that game only—took few risks down the field. And given the dominance of Alabama’s defense last year, that wasn’t a terrible game plan. As long as the Crimson Tide didn’t hand Clemson points with a turnover, they had a chance. The only time Sarkisian took the playcalling handcuffs off Hurts was that final possession. He had no other choice. And Hurts put Alabama in the end zone.

With Sarkisian off to run the Atlanta Falcons’ offense and Lane Kiffin cruising Del Boca Vista (Phase Three) as FAU’s head coach, former New England Patriots tight ends coach—and three-time NFL offensive coordinator—Brian Daboll takes over Hurts and the rest of the Crimson Tide offense. It will be curious to see how the NFL transplant handles the parts of Alabama’s offense that were installed as responses to changes in the college game. Hurts is there specifically because coach Nick Saban wanted a quarterback who can run and throw. So is Tua Tagovailoa, the freshman from Hawaii who will try to take the job from Hurts just as Hurts took the job from all of Alabama’s (since transferred) older quarterbacks last year. Presumably, Alabama’s offense will not revert to the AJ McCarron era.

Saban’s plan will likely evolve while still keeping a pro-style foundation. That is crucial to prepare Alabama’s offensive players for the NFL. The list of players drafted is the Crimson Tide’s best recruiting tool, so to keep the superior talent coming, Saban knows the players need to be prepared for the next level. But Saban also wants to take advantage of what the college rules allow, so don’t expect him to scrap the wrinkles Alabama began adding in 2014 when Blake Sims started at quarterback.

If Hurts can use this offseason to develop as a passer, he might ultimately leave college football with the same kind of reputation as Watson. Few people could handle the pressure of starting at quarterback at Alabama as a true freshman. Saban knew that, and that’s why he was cautious last summer to make Hurts the starter even though then-coordinator Kiffin was pushing for it. “You’ve got to make sure they’re ready,” Kiffin said in December. “If you put them in and they play bad, they may be ruined forever. … Alabama is so football everywhere you go. When you do great, you’re going to hear you’re really great all the time. When you do bad, you’re going to hear you’re really bad all the time.”

But Hurts could manage that pressure. He lost a fumble on his first play against USC and still went out and staked his claim to the QB1 spot. “I’m sure many people thought I was done after I fumbled the ball,” Hurts said in December. “My teammates didn’t give up on me, and my coaches didn’t give up on me. That’s all that matters to me.” He proved it again at Ole Miss when he led the Tide on a touchdown drive immediately after coughing up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown that put the Crimson Tide down 21. Hurts wound up throwing for 158 yards and running for 146. Most importantly, Alabama wound up winning 48–43. “There’s this meme somewhere,” Hurts said. “Jalen Hurts when he throws an interception. Jalen Hurts when he throws a touchdown. Jalen Hurts when he fumbles. It’s just a straight face.”

That straight face will help Hurts now. Saban does not like his players to get comfortable. Tagovailoa will get his chances even if Hurts appears to have firm control of the job. Hurts clearly understands Saban’s motivational style, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. “Everybody thinks he’s mean for some reason,” said Hurts, who claims the “ass chewings” from his high school coach father Averion Hurts surpassed any Saban has delivered. “I don’t know why. He’s a cool guy.”

That description will get tested if Hurts doesn’t improve as a passer this offseason. But if Hurts stays cool and evolves into the quarterback his last drive suggests he can be, the possibilities for Alabama’s offense may be limitless.

A Random Ranking

We’ve gotten a little too pop-culture heavy in this section lately, so today we’ll correct that by ranking Shakespeare’s top five comedies.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

2. The Taming of the Shrew

3. The Merchant of Venice

4. As You Like It

5. Twelfth Night

First and 10

1. While South Carolina's basketball team was getting ready to upset Duke this past weekend, the Gamecocks' football team tried out a new quarterback. It looks like the kid has a future.

2. Ravens coach John Harbaugh told a great story on Peter King’s podcast at The MMQB about Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh taking over a recent family basketball game.

3. Speaking of podcasts, I visited recently with mental coach Trevor Moawad for the Campus Rush podcast. Moawad explained why coaches like Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher care so much about the little things.

 

4. Yet another of Matt Rhule’s hires at Baylor has managed to make the program look even worse. DeMarkco Butler, the team’s associate director of football operations, was fired last week for sending inappropriate text messages to a teenager, according to KWTX. In February, strength coach Brandon Washington was fired after he was arrested in a prostitution sting. These two had nothing to do with the scandal that caused Baylor’s board of regents to fire coach Art Briles and push out president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw, but these incidents haven’t helped the program’s perception one bit.

5. Here’s a college football-themed example of why people hate bureaucrats. The city of Gainesville, Ga., honored Clemson quarterback—and Gainesville native—Deshaun Watson with a red street sign that features white letters. (The teams at Gainesville High, where Watson starred, wear red and white.) Earlier this month, the Department of Transportation threatened the city’s federal funding because the Deshaun Watson Way sign on the street leading to the school didn’t comply with code. “The DOT’s approach to this issue is inappropriate, and I only hope it was not driven by Crimson Tide sympathies,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins told WDUN.

6. Michael Jordan said “the ceiling is the roof” with regard to North Carolina football. Larry Fedora and his football team took that and ran with it.

7. In 2008, I shadowed Florida State safety Myron Rolle as he went from his Rhodes Scholar interview to the Maryland game in the same day. At the time, Rolle dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon. On Saturday, the Florida State medical school graduate announced that he’ll be a neurosurgery resident at Harvard.

8. Clemson has added a tombstone for its national title game victory against Alabama to its big win graveyard.

9. Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrated the Wildcats’ first NCAA men’s basketball tourney win with the Wildcats on Thursday.

10. “Remember, the rattler is more afraid of the mullet than you are of the rattler.”

What’s Eating Andy

As you’re about to read, I’ve broken my diet to provide content for this column. (Also because I love pizza.) Needless to say, this has brought back some cravings that I’d mostly eliminated by reducing my intake of sugar and flour. Please send any tips for fighting through these cravings to me on Twitter. Together, we’re going to make me thinner.

What’s Andy Eating

When I was in elementary school in Key Largo, Fla., my dad was an assistant football coach at Coral Shores High in nearby Tavernier. During the season, Friday nights were obviously booked. But once the season ended, Friday nights were for pizza. The staff, their spouses and their children would meet at Pizza Hut. The grown-ups would eat pizza and pour from pitchers. I would eat pizza and play Galaga or Roadblasters. I’ve always cherished those memories, but as I grew older and expanded my culinary horizons, a question emerged: How much more awesome would those nights have been if Key Largo had a good pizza place at the time?

While I agree that certain pizza chains have vastly improved their offerings in recent years, I’m still partial to the local pizza joint. In high school, I downed many pies at a place called Papa Joe’s in Altamonte Springs, Fla. Just smelling the place made me happy. I’ve always had a soft spot for places where coaching staffs or neighbors or co-workers can gather and swap stories over pizza and beer. If the place has video games the kids can pump quarters into, even better.

Last week, I walked into the ideal version of such a place. Pizza Port might be more famous for its house-brewed beer than it is for its pizza, so I wondered if the pizza was simply an excuse to get people to order more beer. But when I walked into the original location in Solana Beach, Calif., I knew that couldn’t be the case. The aroma gave it away. Most great pizza places give themselves away before the first bite. Years of seasoning in the oven mix with the melting cheese, baking dough and crisping meats on the baking pies to create a scent more intoxicating than any perfume. Only barbecue produces a similar olfactory reaction.

Armed with the knowledge that whatever I ordered would satisfy, I chose the Meet Extreme Meat (pepperoni, meatballs, Canadian bacon, salami and sausage) on a traditional crust and the pizza of the month—which featured pieces of tri-tip, asparagus and barbecue sauce—on Pizza Port’s whole grain beer crust. Then I headed to the bar, where the various beers brewed at the different Pizza Port locations are on tap. I chose Russia Or Bust, an imperial Russian stout brewed at the San Clemente shop. I ordered wisely, and not just because the 10.7% alcohol by volume brew offered an easy buzz. That beer would pair perfectly with one of my pies.

The tri-tip pizza on the wheat crust was fine. It had a crisp base and a tiny bit of chew on top. The barbecue sauce mixed well with the tri-tip and the asparagus. Had this been the only pizza I ordered, I would have declared Pizza Port passable, but this review wouldn’t be nearly as enthusiastic. The Meet Extreme Meat, on the other hand, was tremendous.

I drive pizza snobs crazy because I refuse to declare a side in the New York vs. Chicago debate. I’ll happily devour both styles, but the truth is my preference lies somewhere in between. Pizza Port’s traditional crust hits that sweet spot. The soft dough bubbles up and creates a thick—but not too thick—chewy crust that still gets slightly crispy on the bottom. Combine this with a deli’s worth of meats and it might be my ideal pizza. Needless to say, a pizza that heavy deserves a heavy beer. That’s where the Russia or Bust came in handy. I like my chocolate on the bitter side, so it only makes sense that I would prefer my chocolatey beer to be bitter as well.

Alternating swallows of the dark, biting stout with bites of the meaty, cheesy, chewy pizza made me wish we could get that coaching staff back together for a few more pitchers. The high school football coaches—and all the other citizens, for that matter—of San Diego County have no idea how good they have it.

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