CHANNELVIEW, Tex. — Here around the cacophonous boulevards east of downtown Houston, a new coach manned the Channelview High Falcons in 2006, whereupon players mired in summer workouts quickly noticed his 8-year-old son running willingly and willfully around the track, then joining players for the abs circuits. Former tight end Tory Ryan recalls thinking, “This kid doesn’t have anything better to do?”
Such scenes became part of Channelview’s peerless lens on an unusual college football story, involving another coach hired early in 2007 but at Alabama and involving that same former kid, Jalen Hurts, now a widely admired man of 20, with a 25-2 quarterbacking record, a Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year award from 2016 and, somehow, a No. 2 spot on the depth chart, even if it’s not particularly a snub.
If ever there were evidence of the Louvre of American football talent Nick Saban has coaxed to Alabama across these past 12 seasons, this would be it.
On Saturday, No. 1 Alabama (3-0) will welcome No. 22 Texas A&M (2-1) for its fourth game this season with sophomore Tua Tagovailoa starting at quarterback and with everybody from here to Tuscaloosa and beyond noting the new NCAA rule that allows players to appear in four games yet still redshirt the year. Hurts almost certainly will play in his fourth game amid the usual stadium din, with whatever he decides from here figuring to loose a different kind of din, that of chatter.
Ryan referred to Hurts’s considerable talents when he, nowadays a coach at Mater Dei Prep in New Jersey, said as if to warn:
“Everyone will know again soon.”
In local conversation both in person and, of course, online, “Some of it is, ‘Jalen needs to start,’ ” said Thomas Reynolds, who runs social-media accounts for Channelview athletic teams as a hobby. “Some other people talk about, ‘Jalen needs to transfer.’ I think a lot of the community is saying that if Jalen is not starting or playing, he needs to move to another team.”
This famous quarterback yarn sprouted Jan. 8 in Atlanta. That’s when and where Georgia led Alabama by 13 points at halftime of the College Football Playoff national title game, and the stat sheet showed Hurts at 3-for-8 passing for 21 yards along with six rushes for 47 yards, including a 31-yard run. In a move a wee percentage of hardheaded coaches would have made, Saban switched to Tagovailoa, suddenly summoned into peak urgency after a freshman season of non-urgency.
The Hawaiian’s first drive fizzled, and his second reached a third-and-seven play on which he improvised a nine-yard scramble. From there, he soared into lore, with his searing, game-winning, 41-yard overtime touchdown pass to wide receiver DeVonta Smith for a 26-23 victory, the kind of sight that can make the gruff weep. Apparently, Alabama had two tiptop quarterbacks, as if Alabama, with its five national titles in the past nine seasons, needed such.
That led to an offseason in which Hurts’s father, Averion, told Bleacher Report both that he had “no problem” with Saban but that Jalen Hurts could become “the biggest free agent in college football history” and in which Jalen Hurts said, without whining, that Alabama had communicated with him poorly regarding the situation.
Against Louisville, Arkansas State and Mississippi this season, three games Alabama won by an aggregate 170-28, Hurts the decorated backup completed 19 of 28 passes for 248 yards and four touchdowns with one interception and rushed 12 times for 61 yards. Tagovailoa finished 36 for 50 for 646 yards and eight touchdowns with zero interceptions.
To a question from an AL.com reporter Monday in Tuscaloosa, Saban said, “Oh, I think Jalen has certainly improved in the pocket. There’s no doubt about that. There’s never been any question about his arm talent. It’s always been, you know, making decisions, choices, second reads, that type of thing, which I think he’s really made a lot of improvement on, and I think when he’s done those things, he’s had good success, and I think consistency and continuing to do those things is the key to him in the future.”
To a question from an Austin American-Statesman reporter Monday in College Station, Tex., comparing Alabama’s Tagovailoa-led offense of 2018 with its Hurts-guided offense of 2017, Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said, “I think they’ve opened it up more. They’re throwing more dropback. There’s a larger volume of that right now in what they’re doing. Now everybody has it on third down, but in the first- and second-down things, you’re seeing more volume of true passing game, dropback passing game, than they did before. No doubt.”
He also said, “Of course, Tua’s playing outstanding. And then Jalen, when he plays, plays outstanding.”
In truth, the worst thing people ever said about Hurts was that he was a sublime runner who couldn’t throw the football to the most supreme human levels. Ryan, the coach and former Channelview player and coach, called that “all a bunch of garbage” in a telephone interview from New Jersey. He said, “As biased as I am, I’m saying that also very unbiased, as a football coach. . . . There’s no reason he can’t do the same thing Deshaun Watson did, that he can’t be the same player as Deshaun or Cam [Newton]. He’s got all the skill set.”
Many a U.S. town — or, in Channelview’s case, a census-designated part of Houston — has some sort of ongoing football saga. Around Channelview with its handsome, 8,000-seat stadium, the ongoing plot, Reynolds said, is shaped largely by a mastodon five miles around the boulevards: North Shore High, with its two state titles this century and its matter-of-fact mastery of its neighbor. “If anything, North Shore is kind of like the Alabama of Houston,” Reynolds said.
Along came that serious 8-year-old kid mostly grown up, and, by Hurts’s sophomore year of 2014, Channelview snared a first victory over North Shore, by 49-48. Hurts called it “a personal win” and told Houston reporters his goal had been “to beat everybody my brother [Averion] lost to his senior year.” Since then, North Shore has beaten Channelview by 23-14 (2015), 68-0 (2016) and 56-7 (2017).
Since then, those who know Hurts have known two large January moments.
In the first, in 2017, the freshman Hurts led Alabama on a 68-yard drive and his own 30-yard touchdown run to go ahead of Clemson with 2:07 left before Watson rallied the Tigers to a last-second, 35-31 victory. Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, Ryan’s friend, called him after Hurts’s touchdown to say, “ ‘Yo, you were absolutely right about this Jalen kid. This is crazy,’ ” Ryan said.
In the second, in 2018, came the halftime switch, and everybody called everybody.
They stress that rather than one of those pain-in-the-patoot quarterbacks everybody tolerates for his excellence, Hurts qualifies as beloved. (“Oh, my gosh,” Ryan said.) They admire without surprise his turn as an exemplary teammate in his support of Tagovailoa. They think Tagovailoa is terrific. They wonder, in Ryan’s case, why Alabama didn’t throw four straight vertical routes with Hurts, as it did with Tagovailoa. (“I think if you do the same thing with the play-calling with Jalen, you get the same results, if not better, and then you get out of there without going to overtime,” Ryan said.)
And in this remarkable situation that’s going somewhere and soon, they wonder how things still might turn. “With Jalen Hurts being a talented quarterback,” Reynolds said, “I believe there might be another opportunity if Tua doesn’t play well in one of those big games he’s going to face.”