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Super Bowl Sooners: How Jalen Hurts' 'Roller Coaster' Journey Put Him on the Biggest Stage

Lincoln Riley was Hurts' fifth QB coach in four years, but he turned that in his favor and has been trending up ever since. "There's no arrival," he said. "There's only the journey."

Watching him now, it might be easy to forget that in four seasons of college football, Jalen Hurts had five different position coaches.

Of course, it’s not something Hurts will ever forget. In fact, he says, that oddity, undesirable as it may have been, put him on the path to Super Bowl LVII.

“I think it’s been a journey,” Hurts said this week at Super Bowl Media Day in Phoenix. “It’s been a true journey. I think the beautiful part about it though, the journey’s just beginning. My time at Alabama, I appreciated that so much. Built a lot of good friendships. And obviously going to Oklahoma, did the same thing. So it was just a great time.”

Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in the Super Bowl. He’s made it this far in just his third NFL season — his second as the Eagles’ full-time starting quarterback.

Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts

Characterized by some as little more than a curiosity in the 2020 NFL Draft, derided by OU fans as too impatient in the pocket, benched by Nick Saban in a national championship game at Alabama, Hurts has remained relentlessly positive, taking each negative experience and putting it to work for him.

“It’s nothing new,” Hurts said. “It’s something I embrace. I embrace all of the opinions, all the hate, the doubt. And I didn’t let it define me. And I won’t start letting it define me now.”

His obstacles include four position coaches and multiple coordinator changes in Tuscaloosa and one more when he moved to Norman.

Lane Kiffin was his position coach and OC when Hurts arrived at Alabama out of Channelview High School in Houston. Steve Sarkisian took the reins for that year’s title game, which Bama lost to Clemson. Brian Daboll had both duties during Hurts’ sophomore season — at the end of which he infamously lost his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa in the title game victory over over Georgia. Receivers coach Mike Locksley got promoted to QBs and OC when Hurts was a junior backing up Tagovailoa.

Then at Oklahoma, Hurts got one year of pretty high-level quarterback coaching from one of the best in the business, Lincoln Riley.

That’s not all. After Hurts’ rookie season in Philly, the Eagles fired Doug Pederson and hired Nick Sirianni. That brought more changes to the coaching staff.

“I’ve been fortunate,” Hurts said, “to play for Coach Kiffin, Coach Daboll, Coach Sark, Coach Locks, Coach Riley — the whole list — Coach Dougie P, Coach Sirianni and everyone in that room.

“It was definitely a roller coaster in terms of all the different changes I had to go through and endure and adapt to. But I always found it in myself to turn it into a positive. I think that’s what makes all of this kind of so impressive and different, is to go through all of that and still be here.”

Hurts’ ascension the last two years has been dramatic. After easing into things as a rookie (six touchdown passes, four interceptions in a limited role; he took over as starter for the final four games), Hurts threw for 3,144 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2021 and 3,701 yards and 22 TDs in 2022. He also ran for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and 760 yards and 13 TDs this season.

His 2022 campaign earned him Pro Bowl honors. It’s probably no coincidence that, for the first time since high school, he has the same coaches he had the year before.

Press Taylor was his position coach in 2020. Now it’s Brian Johnson. Pederson was the play-caller when Hurts was a rookie. Now it’s Shane Steichen. Johnson and Steichen have been able to work with Hurts for two years in a row, and their results are pronounced.

“Having four different coaches at Alabama, then changing and going to Oklahoma and having to learn another system, then coming into the league and being challenged with that as well, I’ve kind of soaked in everything from everyone around me,” Hurts said. “So I think coming into this year, having that consistency from coach Steichen and coach Sirianni, coach Brian, having the same coaches for my second year, my first full year starting, has been good for us as an offense.”

Coaching has been a big part of Hurts’ success, no doubt, going back to when he was a high school star — and even before then, as a ballboy for his dad’s high school teams.

Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts

But there’s no magic here. No secret formula. Hurts is a product of his own unique makeup, his own vision for his career, his own drive and determination.

“His work ethic is unmatched,” former OU teammate CeeDee Lamb said this week in an interview on NFL Network. “His will to win. And he’s a leader, man. He’s a natural born leader. Everything that he’s done up to this point don’t really surprise me much at all. I’ve seen it once before and I’m seeing it again, just coming full circle.”

Lamb is now a Pro Bowler himself for the Dallas Cowboys. Lamb was a superstar at OU despite three different quarterbacks in three seasons. His one year with Hurts, he caught 62 passes and put up career-bests of 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns. They’re division rivals now, but Lamb’s respect for Hurts has only grown the three years they’ve been in the NFL.

“He’s staying true to who he is as a player and as a person,” Lamb said. “And that hunger is gonna lead him to — obviously now he’s in the big game.“

Lamb isn’t the only NFL Pro Bowler who’s been impressed with Hurts’ climb.

“My confidence came (for) him pretty early,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said this week at Super Bowl Media Day. “I was very impressed with how he handled himself in college. I feel like a lot of people wouldn’t have done that in that manner, or had that much grace going through what he did (being benched in the title game and relegated to backup for an entire season).

“But just even through the first two seasons, we had some adversity, but he never changed. His personality never changed. His work ethic never changed. And when success started happening, same Jalen.”

Johnson said repeatedly this week he admired the combination of Hurts’ work ethic and physical gifts.

With 1,898 rushing yards through his first three seasons, Hurts has quickly evolved into one of the most dynamic quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. His three-year rushing total currently ranks third all-time behind Lamar Jackson (2,906) and Cam Newton (2,032).

Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts

“You look at him physically, you know, around 6-1, 225, was a powerlifter in high school, can squad 5-600 pounds,” Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of guys in the NFL that can physically do that at the quarterback position. So that’s why he’s able to do what he can do in the run game. He’s strong throwing the ball physically. Yeah, just a different makeup.”

But athletic ability and strength and even his still-improving arm aren’t the most impressive things about Hurts. That’s something else entirely.

The Eagles, for instance, had just re-upped with Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP season in 2017 before an injury knocked him out of the team’s Super Bowl run. But they drafted Hurts in the second round anyway, and all Hurts did was go to work — learning the playbook at first, then eventually taking over the starting job as the team sent Wentz to Indianapolis. 

Hurts went from being the source of Eagles’ fans draft day fury to being their hope for another Super Bowl crown. 

“With Jalen, he always keeps the same composure,” Johnson said. “He never changes. He always has good body language. He always works his ass off. He never really has to say a whole lot. He commands a (room) when he steps in it and he’s more of a doer than a talker.

“He’s very quiet. He talks when he needs to, and usually, when he does, it has some substance behind it. He works. He really sets a good example with his body language.”

“I think my parents prepared me for all this,” Hurts said. “I thank my parents for everything that I’ve been able to go through. I call them formative experiences. Good, bad or indifferent, what you go through shapes who you are.”

Hurts’ one season at Oklahoma was all good — unforgettable, even.

Replacing back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, Hurts duplicated their run by taking the Sooners to the College Football Playoff for the third year in a row, and was the runner-up to LSU’s Joe Burrow for the 2019 Heisman.

His 21 rushing touchdowns that year is tied for fourth in school history (first among QBs). His passer efficiency rating of 191.20 is also fourth (and ranks second for a career). His total offense number of 5,149 yards ranks second in school history (behind Murray’s 5,362) and his 1,298 rushing yards is a school record for quarterbacks (and currently ranks 13th among all players in school history).

Murray ran with the football, but seldom by design. He carried it 140 times in 2018, mostly on scrambles. In 2019, Hurts — who was the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2016 — had his best year as a runner and was frequently the feature back, with a school-record 233 attempts.

Riley, an air raid disciple, had never had a quarterback like Hurts. But they figured it out together, and it worked.

“It goes back to parenting,” Johnson said. “His dad was a coach. He was around football all his life. So he’s been around that type of thing from a very early age. He understands football lingo, he understands a lot that goes into the game. I think that’s helped him throughout his journey.”

“Being a coach’s kid,” Hurts said, “it’s allowed me to separate myself from everyone around me. The development and experiences that I had as a kid, being a coach’s kid, being that ball boy on the sideline, it’s propelled me to heights that I never thought. And I lean on those experiences when I’m in tough times.”

Ultimately, Hurts has embraced Philadelphia just like he embraced Alabama and Oklahoma. He knows his job is to play football, and he strives to excel at it. But he’s got a higher purpose in mind.

Jalen Hurts

Jalen Hurts

“Jesus replied, ‘You may not know now, but later you’ll understand,’ ” Hurts said. “I feel like I was going through a really tough time in college, going through things that no one else was really going through. I knew that I was going through it for a reason. I really believe that. So that’s what I double down on. I believe faith without work is dead. … So I have a lot of faith, I put a lot of work in and I never stopped believing in myself and what could be. I had limitless possibilities.

“I just want to set the example as someone who did things in a respectful way, the right way, was a relentless competitor, and ultimately impacted the people around me. I know there are a lot of kids across the world watching — always watching. I feel like someone with this type of platform, you have to know there’s always someone watching, and be a positive influence for them so when their opportunity comes, they can do it the right way too.

“I never knew where I was going. I never knew where I would end up. I never knew where I’d go. But I never said it couldn’t be done. One thing I’ve always been adamant on is not putting a limit on myself. And that’s something I’ll never start doing. I’ll never put a limit on myself, nor my game. I just want to continue to grow. I feel like people expect a person to arrive. But I believe there is no arrival. There’s only the journey.”

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