The Opportunity in Front of Jalen Hurts

With Tua Tagovailoa sidelined, Jalen Hurts has had the stage all to himself in Tuscaloosa this month. With his father's comments about the possibility of a transfer making headlines, Alabama's spring game offers the incumbent starter a chance to take control of the narrative.
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UPDATE: Jalen Hurts threw for 195 yards on 19-of-37 passing and rushed for 33 yards on 15 carries in Alabama's spring game Saturday.

Spring football is notorious for the overreactions outsiders assign to glowing practice reports, but there’s no doubt few players in the nation stood to gain more from the past several weeks than Jalen Hurts. Alabama’s two-year starter at quarterback, you may recall, was famously benched at halftime of the national title game in January, only to watch the Crimson Tide rally behind true freshman Tua Tagovailoa and stun Georgia 26–23 in overtime on a magical 41-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith. Before the game, Tagovailoa had attempted just 53 passes all year, shepherding the second-string offense through garbage time situations, but his late-game heroics galvanized Alabama, swept the rest of the nation into a frenzy and led many to believe the starting job in Tuscaloosa would be his when the 2018 season kicks off.

That still might be the case. But Tagovailoa hurt his hand in the first practice of spring ball on March 20 and re-injured it eight days before the spring game. This week, he’s been dressed but not participating in quarterback drills, and he won’t play in the team’s spring game on April 21. 

All eyes, then, are on Hurts. After two years as Alabama’s starter, he’s said he won’t switch positions, and his father Averion Hurts made it quite clear in a Bleacher Report interview this week that Hurts is gunning for the starting job he lost in January and will likely transfer if he doesn’t win it. And although the prospect of profiting off a teammate’s injury isn’t exactly something most players relish, I’ll do the dirty work and say it outright: Hurts has been dealt a stroke of luck at Tagovailoa’s expense.

Sure, spring football lacks most aspects of true competition, but it can mark a turning point for quarterback battles scheduled to formally wrap up in fall camp. Saban won’t make a final decision after Saturday’s game, but Hurts has an opportunity to shift the spotlight and the narrative if he caps off a spring practice in which all eyes have been on him in style.

As Alabama's QB Situation Sits Up in the Air, Nick Saban Has Two Good Options at Hand

For much of his time at Alabama, he’s been the recipient of a level of criticism that’s nowhere near normal for a player who lost the national title game as a true freshman and started every game of a title run as a sophomore. Teams across football would kill for a quarterback who’d get them to that point—no matter that Hurts wasn’t the primary architect of Alabama’s success. Still, during his struggles he’s been called a system quarterback at best, a limiting factor at worst.

As a sophomore last fall, Hurts focused on cutting down turnovers, and although he threw just one interception, he was sacked 24 times and looked worse in the pocket than he had his freshman year. Hurts had perhaps his worst performance of the year in a November loss to Auburn, going 12 of 22 for just 112 yards through the air, and he threw for only 120 yards in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson. By the time of the national championship, the thought that Tagovailoa might play was anything but far-fetched, which made Hurts’s uninspiring start to the game only the final factor that led Saban to make the mid-game switch.

In sports, recency bias often plays into personnel decisions. What have you done for me lately can trump an overall body of work, and for Hurts lately is three uninspiring statistical days on a national stage. Without the threat of game-speed contact, there’s a limit to how many lessons should be taken from how Hurts looks on Saturday, but a strong spring game would give Alabama fans (and teams interested in jumping into the fray should he lose his job to Tagovailoa and seek a transfer) a fresh look at his talents. If he shows the same accuracy he displayed in 2017 with improved pocket presence and mobility, that’s a step in the right direction toward undoing one popular simplification of.

Saban almost never resolves a quarterback battle in the spring. When Hurts initially won the job, it wasn’t until Week 1 of the 2016 season, when he relieved Blake Barnett against USC and held onto the starting role from then on. (Barnett transferred later that month.) There’s no reason to think we’ll know any more about Hurts’s future by the end of this weekend, especially if he plays well. Tagovailoa still has the benefit of the doubt, and he’ll get a shot to prove his second-half and overtime performances on Jan. 8 were a representative sample of what he can do.

As none other than former Alabama offense coordinator Lane Kiffin pointed out this week, let’s not forget this is the same Jalen Hurts who got the Alabama job as a freshman and went on to win the SEC’s offensive player of the year award that year. And as vocal as Tide players were in support of Tagovailoa during his first year on campus, they endorsed Hurts just as loudly through his late-season struggles. Alabama has two very good options going into next fall, with plenty of development left ahead of them—whether it’s in Tuscaloosa or elsewhere. Only one of them gets to build his own case in the A-Day Game.