ATLANTA – In a college football era defined by quarterbacks and Alabama, a quarterback has never defined Alabama. Over the 10 seasons Nick Saban has molded Alabama into a monster, eight quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy, and the other two reside on the mantles of Alabama running backs. Only once has a quarterback, A.J. McCarron in 2013, received the most Heisman votes among Crimson Tide players. The quarterback has the central figure at most every college football program, but not at the best college football program, where he has been a caretaker.
Whether you have enjoyed, tolerated or cursed Alabama’s lording over the sport without an eminent figure behind center, just wait until you see Alabama with one. The Tide will vie for Saban’s fifth national title in Tuscaloosa as the overwhelming favorite at the outset of the College Football Playoff, and they will face fourth-seeded Washington on Saturday with true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who may change, if he has not already changed, the dynamic at Alabama.
Hurts, the son of a high school coach from Channelview, Texas, first surfaced last January as an early enrollee, drawing raves as he mimicked Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson on the scout team during Alabama’s national title preparation. He showed he can do the real thing just as well. In his first season, Hurts accounted for 33 total touchdowns, completed 65.2 percent of his passes and ran for 841 yards. He provided the truest dual threat Alabama has had under Saban, and he will remain in Tuscaloosa for at least another two years.
“I definitely think he’ll be the face of the program,” freshman right tackle Jonah Williams said.
Hurts ingratiated himself with teammates and coaches from the moment he arrived, with both his talent and maturity. As a child, he wore a T-shirt that read, “Born To Play Football.” Playing for his father, Averion, in high school helped him learn the game and grow faster than most prospects.
“We can’t even imagine what it’s like to be that age, and to have this much attention on you, and this much responsibility,” Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. “Coach [Saban] does not like to play freshman quarterbacks, because he talks about, at Alabama, football is everything. If you don’t do well, you might be done, because you’re going to be so criticized. Everywhere you go, that’s all that’s talked about – that’s all that’s on the radio, that’s all that’s in the newspaper. You got to be very careful with freshmen.”
Saban allowed Kiffin to mold an offense around Hurts. Alabama had thrived with pro-style offenses, mostly built around pocket passers and power running. Kiffin urged Saban to modernize the attack. Hurts’s ability convinced Saban to let him.
“What’s different is, he can run,” Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake said. “If it’s a more prototypical pro quarterback, maybe you’re not going to have that. You could have the best play called, our guys are doing their job, covering everybody up, and then he just slits your throat with a back-breaking, first-down run.”
Last season, with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and backup Kenyan Drake, both of whom played in the NFL this season, Alabama gained 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. While breaking in two new running backs, both underclassmen, Alabama averaged 5.8 yards this season. Kiffin pointed to the presence of Hurts as the reason for the improvement. With defenses having to devote attention to a running threat at quarterback, Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough had more space.
“We had to change a few things philosophically in terms of how we went about our offense this year because of what Jalen could do and what his experience level was,” Saban said. “I don’t think you ignore the fact you have a young quarterback when you play a freshman. You try to do things that he can do and have success.”
Not everyone has been impressed. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports, Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze openly questioned Hurts’s passing ability. Freeze, whose Rebels served Alabama its most recent loss, in the third game of 2015, declared the key to toppling Alabama is forcing Hurts to throw. The Rebels lost to Alabama this year, 48-43, based largely on two Crimson Tide defensive touchdowns.
“You’ve got to make that quarterback beat you with the pass,” Freeze said. “That was our game plan, and it was beautiful – for a quarter. I don’t think he can beat you throwing. But he’s one heck of a competitor, and he can run. … I’m not sold he can win it all as a passer.”
The notion irked Kiffin. He believes Hurts could be a first-round NFL draft pick. Kiffin will become Florida Atlantic’s head coach next year, but if he remained at Alabama, he said he would plan to run Hurts less than his 162 attempts this season, to better take advantage of his arm and protect his health.
“I respect Coach Freeze, but I disagree,” Kiffin said. “I think Jalen is overlooked. When a guy can run, there’s so much attention on that, that I think it’s overlooked how he can throw. There’s some big-time throws Jalen makes in games.”
Kiffin also said the amount of running Alabama asked of Hurts meant he had less opportunity to practice pass plays. “I think that hinders his development sometimes,” Kiffin said. “There was a game he carried the ball 20 times. That’s 20 carries that aren’t passes. Sometimes, you don’t get in the rhythm of passing during the game.”
Having studied all of Hurts’s games, Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake landed somewhere in the middle. Hurts’s physical ability awed him, but he also believes Alabama’s coaches put him in position to succeed with simple throws.
“It’s in its early stages right now,” Lake said. “Now, he has a cannon. The casual fan could see he has a rocket for an arm. The way they do their scheme, the way they make everything look like a run, and then all of a sudden he has easy completions, they really make it successful. Nothing against Jalen. He’s a really good football player. But I really think their offensive coaches have done a good job.”
The frightening prospect for opponents is, Hurts will only improve. He will become a new kind of terror, the Alabama quarterback who serves as the primary star.
“He’s such a selfless guy, that’s not going to affect him at all,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “When you’re a natural leader, it doesn’t matter how old you are. He’s a natural leader. He’s earned our respect. I saw it right away – this kid is going to be special one day. I didn’t know it was going to be so soon.”