SAN JOSE, California — A mob of reporters followed the quarterback as television camera lights and live-streaming iPhones captured his every move. From the stands, fans chanted his name and reached out their arms. “Thank you!” they yelled to him. “We love you!” others screamed. Everybody wanted a peek at him, just a glimpse. Maybe they could make eye contact for the briefest of seconds, get his attention—a wave, a head nod, something. He obliged some lucky autograph-seekers, scribbling his name on footballs, notepads and hats. He spent time with a wheelchair-bound boy, posed for selfies with grown men, and hugged pompom-carrying women. And he is ... the backup.
This is Jalen Hurts. You know, the guy who won 26 games and lost two as a starter, the quarterback who led Alabama to the 2016 national championship game as a true freshman, watched the Crimson Tide rally to win the next year’s title from the bench, then lost his starting job as a junior only to save the day in the SEC championship game last month. The backup quarterback is often the most popular player among rabid fan bases like this one, but Hurts’s case is different. The fans gathered at the SAP Center in downtown San Jose to celebrate the backup, not because they wish he would usurp Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, but because they respect and admire a decision he made, sticking with the Crimson Tide when other players would have walked away from a team where their roles were lessened.
And there’s more to come, he says, whether that’s in Tuscaloosa or some other college football town. “My story’s not over, so I wouldn’t say it’s the ending,” he told reporters at College Football Playoff media day, as hundreds of Bama fans watched interviews unfold from this hockey arena. “We’ll continue to see things unfold and see where things take me.” As his father told Bleacher Report in the spring, Hurts could be “the biggest free agent in college football history” this offseason, a year with more high-profile quarterback movement than the game’s ever seen. Three days before that offseason finally arrived, Hurts declined to discuss a potential transfer, citing the top-ranked Tide’s national championship game against undefeated Clemson on Monday at Levi’s Stadium.
What do you think about a possible transfer? “That doesn’t have anything to do with Clemson so I don’t know what to say,” he said. A reporter tried a second time. “That doesn’t have anything to do with Clemson either,” he deadpanned. Dan Enos, Alabama’s quarterback coaching guru, says Hurts hasn’t discussed a transfer with him. The coach is going about things as if his No. 2 will remain with the team. That seems like a long shot, but so too was Hurts staying around this season, as he supported the younger, more talented player who took his job despite his own sparkling record. “I think Jalen is a real unique guy,” Enos says. “When I say that, I mean that in a real positive way. He’s had something happen to him that’s kind of unprecedented in football.”
It is only unprecedented if you exclude the quarterback situation of Alabama’s opponent in this year’s title bout. At Clemson, a true freshman, Trevor Lawrence, beat out a successful veteran in Kelly Bryant (16–2 as a starter) who took advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rules to leave the team after the fourth game of the season and will play at Missouri next fall with immediate eligibility as a graduate transfer. Hurts stayed, and setting himself up for another celebration from the sidelines on Monday night in the Bay Area. “I think everything has unfolded in unique ways, but I think everything happens for a reason,” Hurts says. “I’m blessed.” It’s easy to see why: He’s participating in a third championship game in three years. “It’s critical that we appreciate these moments and really soak it all in because these moments aren’t guaranteed,” he says.
He could be like Bryant, preparing to take over as a starter at another school. Or he could be here, absorbing the genuine warmth of a fan base that has wrapped its arms around a player some wanted benched a year ago. Why he didn’t leave is a complicated question. Maybe he wanted tutoring from Enos, a respected quarterbacks coach who will reportedly take over as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after Mike Locksley leaves for the Maryland head coach job. Maybe he predicted a moment like the SEC championship game, when he led game-tying and go-ahead touchdown drives against Georgia with Tagovailoa injured. Maybe he enjoys this team, maybe he’s attached to the players and the town. Maybe all of this is true. The bottom line is he’s here, writing what might be the final chapter of an incredibly rare college football story.
It’s unique, just like him, as his position coach says. Enos was hired as Alabama’s quarterbacks coach in February, a month after Tagovailoa led that second-half comeback for the national title. Enos heard the rumblings, from fellow coaches at conventions, random fans at Tuscaloosa grocery stores and everywhere in between. “I told this to my wife this about a month ago,” Enos started. “When I first got here and met people, they would say, ‘You’ve got the toughest job in America! I wouldn’t want your job!’ At the end of this season, they were like, ‘You’ve got the easiest job in America!’ We made a more difficult situation into a situation that’s benefited everybody. In a lot of places, that room might not have been so good. There would have been some ... whatever ...”
How was that “whatever” avoided? Mac Jones knows. He’s in that quarterback room too, the third-stringer behind two players who are a combined 40–2 as starters. As a redshirt freshman, Jones is developing under Enos while also sharing a meeting room with the two most accomplished quarterbacks currently sharing a college football roster, maybe ever. This could be seen as a disadvantage (Jones is not playing anytime soon) or an advantage (he’s learning a lot). He never felt Hurts would transfer, and that feeling stemmed from the camaraderie in the QB room. “There was obviously a competition going on,” Jones says. “Always healthy competition. There was never any jabs or secret trash-talking. Coach Enos did a good job of saying, ‘Hey, there’s a competition in here and it’s up for grabs.’ The competition was healthy. Some places it’s not healthy. Jalen kept his mouth shut and did his job and work.”
The situations of Bryant and Hurts weren’t completely the same. Bryant had one year of eligibility left. Hurts had two. The new redshirt rule allowed him to play four games, at which point Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced Lawrence as the starter and Bryant packed his bags. While Enos kept his room together, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott dealt with the blow of losing a talented and experienced player in the middle of the season. Things worked out O.K. In fact, previous third-string quarterback Chase Brice saved Clemson’s season in its first game without the services of Bryant, replacing an injured Lawrence to rally the Tigers for a comeback win over Syracuse. “It’s the world we’re in,” Scott says. “You’ve got to take that into consideration when you’re out recruiting quarterbacks to be sure you always have enough. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s something we talk a lot about.”
Jones understands Bryant’s decision. You’ve got to do what’s best for you, he says, but that answer is different for everyone. “Obviously guys sometimes tap out a little early and there’s still opportunities on the table. They think whatever is happening at the school they’ll never get a chance. They just leave mid-season to help out their personal brand,” Jones says. “At Alabama, we’re about the team, Jalen and I. If you’re about the team, everything will play out.”
So here he is, Jalen Hurts, completing that final chapter, taking in that love from those hundreds of Alabama fans, enjoying this moment as the guy who stuck it out and concentrating on the next game. “We’re about to play for a national championship,” he said. “That’s what I’m focused on. I can’t dwell on the past.”