- Jalen Hurts rarely grabs the headlines when it comes to Alabama, but as he showed again at the Sugar Bowl, he's played an essential role in keeping the Tide's offense humming over the last two seasons.
As Alabama’s starting quarterback over the past two seasons, Jalen Hurts has a record of 25–2. On Monday night, he became the first quarterback this century to lead his team to the national title game in each of his first two seasons. In Alabama’s 24–6 win over Clemson, the reigning champion, Hurts completed 66% of his passes for 120 yards, committing not a single turnover—and yet somehow, as always, he seemed an afterthought.
Sure, the sophomore was honored as the offensive player of the game. He dutifully reported to the postgame press conference alongside nose guard Da’Ron Payne and coach Nick Saban, during which he was barely asked about his performance. Last year’s SEC Offensive Player of the Year shouted out his offensive line and discussed how past losses—remember, he’s experienced just two in as many years—fuel his team. Saban explained a late-game exchange with Brian Daboll, clarifying that he’d appeared disgruntled with his offensive coordinator because he wasn’t running the ball or stretching the clock enough.
Hurts’s assessment of his unit’s work in the game that will send them to an all-SEC national title game against Georgia next Monday was absent bravado. “We could have done some things better,” he said, “but we came out with the win and that is all that matters.”
That’s correct, but it downplays Hurts’s role in Monday’s win. He passed for two touchdowns—the first, a 12-yard toss to Calvin Ridley, the second, a trick play to Payne from a yard out—but it’s more fun to talk about a nose tackle’s fancy feet than it is to commend a quarterback for holding off one of the best defenses in the country aside from a botched handoff exchange on the first play of the second half that set up a Clemson field goal. Hurts is no Baker Mayfield. (Mayfield lost earlier on Monday.) He’s no Kelly Bryant, probably, either. (Spoiler: He’s also done.) Hurts is a cog in a machine much bigger than he, but there’s been no indication thus far that he’s anything but the right cog. Look how many highly touted programs across college football this season were afflicted by the lack of even a competent quarterback. Take Michigan, which plateaued and lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Florida State boasted a commanding defense that utterly lost its footing after its quarterback fell in Week 1. A great quarterback is worshipped. A very good one in a system that’s humming is all too often overlooked.
Hurts was ill for part of the week leading up to the Sugar Bowl. Because he was not the one who infected Mayfield—expect an oral history of his cold next week—it wasn’t a story. What was: His backup, Tua Tagovailoa, took more first-team snaps in practice. Would he play appreciable time? Would that be the wrinkle that Alabama needed? (Nope, and noooope.) In the end, Hurts was well enough to play well enough, and against Clemson, that’s no easy task.
Earlier in the week, Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell was asked about game-planning for Hurts, and he described the best version of the sophomore quarterback, one college football has seen in flashes for two years. “You can’t really put it into words when you have a guy as versatile as he is,” Ferrell said. “When you have a guy that can do a little bit of everything and does it very well and has the pieces around him to maximize the abilities he has, there really is no limit you can put on his talent or the level of ceiling he has. It really is more of a whole unit and a team effort as far as the defense to stop him.”
Hurts had one of his poorer rushing performances of the season Monday, finishing with 40 yards on 11 carries and contributing to the Tide’s lone turnover on a play caught in between a handoff and a keeper. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he racked up more than 100 yards in three games this season, and even against Clemson, his legs were good for something; his longest run of the night, for 19 yards, accounted for Alabama’s first first down (after going three-and-out on its first drive) and helped set up the Crimson Tide’s first score of the game. "Jalen has always been a guy that, because of his athleticism and his ability to run the ball, has made a lot of plays with his feet,” Saban said Saturday. “But I also think that we've been able to help him develop as a quarterback in terms of his decision-making in the pocket."
Alabama’s offensive line deserves some share of the credit for Hurts’s pocket presence Monday against a smothering Clemson defense. The Tigers averaged nearly four sacks per game in 2017 but logged just two against Alabama—and apart from those two plays, they had not a single quarterback hurry. Still, Hurts is a crucial part of that dance—whom it’s been far too easy to pile on as being an accessory rather than essential. It’s unfair—and inaccurate.
“I think it’s the nature of the position you’re in as a player,” offensive tackle Jonah Williams said of the constant dissection of Hurts’s game last week. “And as the quarterback for Alabama, anything less than absolute perfection is a disappointment. I think that’s probably an unfair position to put someone in, but I don’t think he’s a guy that cares so much what other people think.”
“I'm not one to critique him,” Williams continued, “and I understand offense better than 99.99999% of the people watching.”