“It’s a great feeling, man. Greatest feeling I ever felt. We came out slow and we made the change. It was probably best for the team. We won. We’re national champs. You can’t wish for anything better than that.” — Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, early on the morning of Jan. 9
ATLANTA — The last time, he sat in the locker room on the other side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Jalen Hurts, who had led Alabama to two national title games as a starter, had been benched with his team trailing by 13 against Georgia at halftime of the second of those national title games. Tua Tagovailoa, the freshman backup seemingly everyone had clamored for, had replaced Hurts and been even better than advertised. He led the Crimson Tide back from that deficit and into overtime. Then, down by three and facing second-and-26, Tagovailoa had thrown a pass Alabama fans will talk about for generations to win the whole damn thing.
And all Hurts could do was smile, congratulate his teammate and try to enjoy the national title the Tide needed someone else to win. Then came an offseason of questions. Would Hurts leave Alabama? A new redshirt rule would allow him to compete for the starting job for four games and then, if he didn’t win it, shut it down and transfer to another school—where he’d have two seasons of eligibility to be the starter.
Then Tagovailoa won the starting job. Hurts kept playing as his backup. He stayed after one game. He stayed after two. He stayed after three. He stayed after four. When Hurts took the field in Alabama’s fifth game, the Crimson Tide faithful cheered. He wasn’t leaving. But he wasn’t the starter, either. He watched and supported Tagovailoa as the Hawaiian sensation emerged as the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy and turned the Crimson Tide’s offense into a buzzsaw that effectively ended games in the second quarter. The Tide won every regular-season game by at least 22 points. Hurts played after Tagovailoa and the starters built the lead.
But Hurts never prepared like the backup. “He’s been locked in,” third-string quarterback Mac Jones says. “It’s not easy when somebody takes your job that you’ve had for two years. But I don’t think that had a super effect on him. Jalen is even-keeled. He just keeps plugging along. … I love watching Jalen. Whatever happens, he’s just a straight line.”
Hurts had a reason for this. “From the day that he didn’t start, he always said there would be a time when he had to make a play,” Alabama tailback Joshua Jacobs says.
That time came Saturday. In the same stadium where Hurts had been benched, against the same opponent that had so flummoxed Hurts that Tide coach Nick Saban turned to Tagovailoa, Hurts trotted off the sideline and into the fray. For most of this SEC championship, Georgia had pounded on Alabama in a way no team had all season. The Bulldogs had made Tagovailoa look human, and with 11:15 remaining and the Tide trailing by seven, injuries had left the sophomore in a heap on the ground. He had sprained his left ankle in the first quarter. In the fourth, he had injured his right foot. As trainers helped Tagovailoa off the field, Hurts took command of the offense. The last time in this building against this team, he had led the Tide to exactly zero points in 30 minutes. Now he had significantly less time to lead Alabama to at least eight.
So Hurts did exactly what he’d done the entire time he was waiting behind Tagovailoa. He went to work.
Hurts, who lost his job because he didn’t throw a ball as beautifully and catchably and accurately as Tagovailoa, hit tight end Irv Smith for a 13-yard gain. Then, on a third-and-five play, he found Jaylen Waddle 23 yards down the field. Later, he ran for a first down. The Bulldogs, who had battered Tagovailoa in the pocket, couldn’t keep Hurts there. If they got pressure, he slipped away and either gained yardage with his legs or kept the play alive long enough to throw. He finished that first drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy on the right edge of the end zone. It was the kind of throw Hurts isn’t supposed to be able to make.
But, remember, he was working while he waited for that moment. He took to heart what quarterbacks coach Dan Enos asked of him. He wanted to be ready when this moment came, even if the outside world didn’t think this moment would come with him wearing an Alabama uniform.
The chattering started the moment Tagovailoa replaced Hurts in the national title game. It gained steam in April when Hurts’s father Averion was quoted in Bleacher Report saying the following things:
• "I told Jalen, you f----- up, you opened the door and put yourself in this situation. Now it's up to you to dig yourself out."
• “He'd be the biggest free agent in college football history.”
These two statements caused a major stir, but both are unequivocally true. Hurts did lose the job to Tagovailoa. And if he had chosen to leave, the guy who helped Alabama to a 26–2 record as a starting quarterback absolutely would have been one of the most sought-after transfer in college football history.
But Jalen Hurts never said he wanted to transfer. Alabama tried to protect Hurts and Tagovailoa by not having them give interviews while they competed for the job, but in the absence of words from Hurts himself, we filled in the blanks. When Saban didn’t shut the door on transfer talk at SEC Media Days, Hurts finally did speak his mind at Alabama’s media day in August. “No one came up to me the whole spring, coaches included, no one asked me how I felt,” Hurts said. “No one asked me what was on my mind. No one asked me how I felt about the things that were going on. Nobody asked me what my future held.”
Hurts wanted to be at Alabama. That was his plan, even if no one believed him. “Everyone on ESPN, everyone else is telling him he’s dumb if he doesn’t redshirt. ‘He’s hurting himself. Look out for yourself,’” Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher says.
Kelly Bryant, the Clemson quarterback who started against Hurts in last season’s Sugar Bowl, did take advantage of the new redshirt rule. When Tigers coach Dabo Swinney opted to start freshman Trevor Lawrence after a win against Georgia Tech, Bryant—a senior who collected his bachelor’s degree in April—left the team. He’s currently weighing his transfer options for next season. But Hurts didn’t want to do that. It was fine for Bryant. But Hurts wanted something different. “It sent a message to us,” Pierschbacher says. “He’s team first. It really helped out the locker room.”
And then, when Alabama needed him most, Hurts helped on the field.
After the Jeudy touchdown and ensuing extra point tied the score at 28, Georgia faced fourth-and-11 at midfield. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart called for a fake punt. The ball was snapped to freshman quarterback Justin Fields, who served as one of the up backs. Fields gained two yards, and Hurts and the Tide took over on their own 48. On third-and-eight from the 50, Hurts bought himself time with his feet and fired to Smith for a 19-yard gain. He then found Waddle for 16 yards. On the next play, Hurts seemed to step back in time. Suddenly, he looked like his freshman self, racing through a hole in the middle of the field to score the only touchdown either team scored at LSU. Or maybe he was transported back to Tampa, where he sprinted up the middle to score a touchdown to turn a deficit into a lead against Clemson in the national title game. Unfortunately for Hurts, Deshaun Watson was the quarterback on the other sideline, and he had more practice with fourth-quarter magic.
Just as he did on those nights, Hurts shot the gap in the middle and rumbled toward the end zone. No Bulldog touched him until he reached the goal line. For the first time since Tagovailoa’s pass landed in Devonta Smith’s hands on the final play of last season, Alabama led Georgia again.
When Jake Fromm’s final Hail Mary bounced off a sea of hands and landed in the back of the end zone, confetti streamed. On the award stand where SEC commissioner Greg Sankey presented the SEC title trophy to the Tide, Hurts and Saban stood arm in arm. Alabama had won 35–28. It was the sixth SEC title of Saban's Alabama tenure. Alabama would be headed to the College Football Playoff for the fifth time in five years. And the Tide couldn't have done it without Hurts.
“I've probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” Saban said later. “It's unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won over a two-year period, start as a freshman, only lose a couple games this whole time that he was a starter, and then all of a sudden he's not the quarterback. How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You've got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be, and for a guy that's a great competitor, that takes a lot. It's not easy to do.”
In the locker room, linebacker Christian Miller finished a reporter’s question. How did it feel to watch Jalen come in …
“… and be the hero? It’s amazing,” Miller said. “He works so hard. Obviously it was tough for him early on. It says so much about him. It’s heartwarming for me, man. He deserves it.”
In a press conference down a hallway from the locker room, Hurts spoke. “It kind of feels like I'm breaking my silence,” he said. Then he talked about his team, but it sounded as if he was talking about himself. “Sometimes we're going to get hit in the mouth,” he said. “But we know that we're going to be fine.”
Afterward, he went back to the locker room and changed. He emerged to see his mother, father and sister. After a long group hug, Jalen Hurts leaned back and flashed a huge grin. Then he went back in for another hug. After Jalen walked toward the bus, Averion Hurts thought about the last time the family left Mercedes-Benz Stadium. So much had happened to his son, and now he’d come full circle. “It made him a stronger man,” Averion Hurts says. “So it’s a great thing for him. He’s just happy he was able to come in and help the team. That’s been his whole thing the entire time—the team.”
Averion shook his head and smiled at the thought of the man he and Pamela Hurts raised. The 11 months between games in Atlanta hadn’t been easy, but Jalen had come out exactly where he’d said he would. He knew, at some point, the Tide would need him to make a play. “He just went out there and made the play,” Jacobs says.