Jalen Hurts Has Broken His Silence, and Alabama's Quarterback Battle Is On

For all the talk about Alabama's 2018 quarterback situation after Tua Tagovailoa's national championship game heroics, maybe we didn't spend enough time talking about the player who watched from the sidelines. That changed at the Crimson Tide's media day. Plus, a call for food recs as the new season begins and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
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When Jalen Hurts spoke out Saturday, providing his view of Alabama’s quarterback situation after months of all of us—and his dad, and his coach—offering hot takes while Hurts stayed silent, one old Hurts quote immediately sprang to mind. He wasn’t trying to at the time, but Hurts predicted all of this in December 2016.

Three days before Alabama played Washington in the Peach Bowl during the quarterback’s freshman season, Hurts was asked who had helped him stay so humble as he rocketed to fame. He started to explain how his father remained brutally honest, and that kept him grounded. Then Hurts, who was 12–0 as Alabama’s starter at the time and already more perceptive than most people twice his age, paused and said this:

“I’m anxious to see if, at any day this season goes bad, how everybody’s going to react to it—if they’re still going to be my friend or show that same love.”

That season hit its first, only and biggest bump 11 days later when Alabama lost to Clemson in the national title game, and while there was some criticism of Hurts, he had led the Crimson Tide on a touchdown drive in the closing minutes. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson just led his team on a touchdown drive even later. Hurts went into that offseason as Alabama’s unquestioned starter, and while there was some early buzz around then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts’s job seemed secure.

The day Hurts wondered about actually came Jan. 8, 2018. He took a 25–2 record as a starter into the national title game against Georgia. With the Tide trailing 13–0 at halftime, coach Nick Saban pulled Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa. The backup led Alabama to a 26–23 overtime win and ignited one of the most fascinating quarterback competitions in college football history.

That competition took another twist Saturday when Hurts vented his frustration after spending seven months listening to everyone else discuss what will happen to him. “The funniest thing about all of it is I’ve never said a thing,” Hurts told reporters at Alabama’s media day, “I kept my mouth closed, didn’t say anything to anyone. In regard to people believing the things that are said, it’s hard to believe someone when the No. 1 source didn’t say anything.”

Now we know what the reaction will be to things going bad on the field for Hurts. Most of us—me included—have assumed Tagovailoa will win the job. Logically, we also have assumed Hurts wants to be a starting quarterback, and if Tagovailoa wins the job, Hurts can’t do that at Alabama. But perhaps we haven’t been fair to Hurts in this race. Tagovailoa put together a great half on the sport’s biggest stage—but it was still only one half. His 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to win the game in overtime was one of the greatest plays in Alabama football history. It was immediately preceded by a 16-yard loss on a sack that could have gone down as one of the worst plays in Alabama football history. That’s not a play Hurts would have let happen. But the problem for Hurts is he might not be as capable as Tagovailoa of making the next play. The stakes of that game combined with the circumstances, the result and the obvious (and disparate) talents of the two quarterbacks to create a perfect storm of offseason conversation.

I’ve said plenty about this situation. So has everyone else in my line of work. Hurts’s father Averion said a lot in April to Matt Hayes of Bleacher Report. “Well, he’d be the biggest free agent in college football history,” the elder Hurts said when asked what would happen if Jalen didn’t win the starting job. Saban has talked about it, too. He has said the competition will work itself out based on how the quarterbacks fare on the field. But at SEC media days last month, when Saban was asked if he expected Hurts to be on the roster when Alabama opens the season against Louisville in Orlando on Sept. 1, he said this: “Well, I have no idea. I expect him to be there. I think it’s our job to give both players a very fair opportunity to have a chance to win the team at their position. I think that one of the two guys—obviously, both are capable. We’ll create a role for one or both of those guys on our team, and they’ll all have to make a decision based on what that outcome is as to what their future is at Alabama.”

Hurts said Saturday that he spoke to Saban following those comments. “I was kind of shocked that he said that,” Hurts told reporters. Hurts said he told Saban that despite all the speculation about a transfer, Hurts intends to stay at Alabama this season and graduate in December no matter what. In fact, Hurts said he told Saban in June that he’d be in Tuscaloosa this season. (June also was the month when a new NCAA rule was passed allowing players to redshirt as long as they appear in no more than four games. Hurts wasn’t clear about whether that conversation came before or after the rule changed.) “There was never a decision needed to be made with regard to me leaving,” Hurts said Saturday. “That was something the general media placed on me. It was something I never said.”

Hurts is frustrated because he felt he was under a gag order. And while it’s true that Alabama’s media strategy was to keep Hurts and Tagovailoa from doing interviews and further stoking the speculation, Tagovailoa did speak to reporters when he returned to his home state of Hawaii in May. Hurts also could have defied the decision and talked—or tweeted, or posted an Instagram video with his side of things—but he elected not to. Instead, he kept it bottled up until Saturday, when it all came pouring out.

“It’s just always been the elephant in the room, and it’s like, for me, no one came up to me the whole spring, coaches included. No one asked me how I felt. No one asked me what was on my mind. No one asked me about how I felt about the things that were going on. Nobody asked me what my future held, and that’s that. So now it’s like, when we try and kind of handle the situation now, for me, it’s kind of late. It’s too late. The narrative has already been created.”

There’s that word again. Saban used it at SEC media days. “The number one thing that you will want to talk about is the quarterback controversy that you’d love to create, that you’ve already created, that you will continue to create,” he said of the media.

Except no one with a keyboard or a microphone created it. Ultimately, Saban did when he made the change at halftime. And no media member, fan or coach created the narrative. Hurts and Tagovailoa did by the way each played in that game.

That’s the bottom line here. Neither Hurts nor Tagovailoa is a good guy or a bad guy in this situation. They find themselves in it because something truly extraordinary happened in the biggest game of last season. The competition exists because one very good quarterback played better in the national championship game than another very good quarterback. Eventually, Saban will have to decide who takes the field with the offense against Louisville. And then Saban will have to decide who gets the majority of the snaps the rest of the way. Questions about that decision led to an absolutely delightful question from Saban on Saturday that I’ll be happy to answer even though it was purely rhetorical.

“What you guys are totally fixed on is somebody has to be first-team and somebody has to be second-team,” Saban said during a press conference Saturday. “Tell me why. I’m asking you why.”

Um, because it’s interesting.

Here is a brief list of things that don’t truly affect my life in any way that I am still nonetheless extremely curious about:

• Will George R.R. Martin ever finish The Winds of Winter?

• Will Kawhi Leonard sign with the Lakers in free agency next year?

• Will there ever be another good movie using the DC Comics superheroes, or did that ship sail when Christopher Nolan stopped making Batman flicks?

• Did Han shoot first? (Of course he did.)

• Why does everybody hate season two of The Wire when it is still superior to 99% of television ever produced?

• Who will start at quarterback for Alabama this season?

That last one may have a little more effect on my life because of my job, but the answer to the question won’t produce any meaningful changes. I just want to know because it’s the biggest on-field question in my favorite sport. I’ll write about it because it’s fascinating. I’ll talk about it on the radio because even if I did something completely different for a living, it’s the debate I’d have with my college football-loving friends over beers. This topic interests Alabama fans especially, but it’s something anyone who even casually follows college football can’t stop wondering about.

And after Hurts talked on Saturday, the topic got even juicier.

“This is a situation that is uncontrollable,” Hurts said. “The coaches can’t control this situation. They can tell you who plays, but as far as the other variations to it, they don’t control it, honestly.”

Alabama fans: Shop the SI Covers store to explore all 38 Sports Illustrated issues that feature the Crimson Tide, all in one place

A Random Ranking

Succession ended its first season on Sunday night, and wow, that escalated quickly. Here are my top five shows that have debuted in 2018 (so far).

1. Barry (HBO)
2. Succession (HBO)
3. Altered Carbon (Netflix)
4. The Tick (Amazon Prime)
5. Nailed It! (Netflix)

Three and Out

1. Ohio State has named a lead investigator and released a timeline for its investigation into Urban Meyer. I break down what those things mean here.

2. Remember the story I wrote last year about the struggle to teach tackling in the age of the targeting penalty and more non-contact practices? It included the tale of Baylor coach Matt Rhule’s decision to acquire robot tackling dummies. Those dummies, it appears, do not play around.

3. This seemed to be the path given the public statements of Oakland A’s officials and Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, but Murray’s agent Scott Boras said it out loud to The Athletic last week: This will be Murray’s final season playing football before he embarks on a professional baseball career. Reporter Jason Kersey followed up with Boras after Sooners coach Lincoln Riley appeared to suggest a possibility that Murray—who has two seasons of eligibility remaining—could return in 2019.

What’s Eating Andy?

Speaking as a citizen of the state of Florida, who among us hasn’t walked out to our pickup truck only to find an alligator in the bed that we may or may not have put there? And who among us hasn’t taken that alligator into the beer cave at the local liquor store*?

*I’m kidding. This only happens to about 20% of Florida’s population. Don’t drive drunk. And don’t play with alligators. Only trained Floridians should play with alligators.

What’s Andy Eating?

Next week, I’ll be hitting the road in earnest to cover another season of college football. This means I’ll also be trying a bunch of new restaurants and chronicling them here. This is where you come in. The best recommendations I get come from people who live in the places I’m visiting. You steer me away from the tourist traps and turn me on to the hidden gems. (Don’t worry about your secret spot getting overrun. Getting written up here means visits from only the coolest college football fans.)

So if you have a moment, shoot me a note on Twitter or Facebook and let me know where I need to eat. If you need some inspiration, check out these photos of carnitas in San Antonio at Carnitas Lonja, the Blueberry Brown Betty cupcake at Cupcake Royale in Seattle, and ribs from Community Q in Decatur, Ga.