Alabama's Jalen Hurts is redefining what true freshmen QBs can accomplish
Hurts is unlike most freshman quarterbacks -- and most Tide signal callers, too
The first time Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts touched the football in college, he botched a zone-read play and lost a fumble. What would have rattled most true freshman quarterbacks was a blip to Hurts, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for two in that 52-6 rout of USC in Week 1.
When Hurts lost a fumble that Ole Miss returned for a touchdown in Week 3, Alabama stared at a 24-3 deficit on the road (tied for its largest hole in Nick Saban's 10 years). Hurts regrouped for a three-play, 50-yard scoring drive in 37 seconds and finished with 146 rushing yards as the Crimson Tide rallied for a 48-43 victory.
Put aside for a moment the big plays Hurts makes with his feet and arm for No. 1 Alabama (7-0). What stands out the most are the plays the 18-year-old doesn't make very often -- the mistakes.
As his passing develops, Hurts is redefining what a true freshman quarterback can accomplish. Even more remarkably, he's doing this at Alabama, where "there's probably more people on the campus who can tell you the name of the quarterback and what he looks like than the governor," said Greg McElroy, Alabama's national championship quarterback in 2009.
"Jalen never seems to get rattled by a mistake. He just claps it off and moves on to the next play."
At the halfway point of the season, what Alabama and Hurts are doing just doesn't normally happen in college football. The last true freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national championship was Jamelle Holieway, who led Oklahoma's run-oriented offense in 1985.
No true freshman quarterback has won the SEC in its 83-year history. Tennessee's Erik Ainge in 2004 is the only true freshman quarterback to even win an SEC division title. If any team can pull it off, it's Alabama, given how talented it is at virtually every position.
Best seasons starting a true freshman quarterback
|Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma||1985||11-1|
|Dan Marino, Pittsburgh||1979||11-1|
|Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State||2008||10-3|
|Erik Ainge, Tennessee||2004||10-3|
|Rick Leach, Michigan||1975||8-2-2|
|Chad Henne, Michigan||2004||9-3|
|Tommie Frazier, Nebraska||1992||9-3|
|Eric Zeier, Georgia||1991||9-3|
|John Bond, Mississippi State||1980||9-3|
|Quincy Carter, Georgia||1998||9-3|
|Matt LoVecchio, Notre Dame||2000||9-3|
|Cale Gundy, Oklahoma||1990||8-3|
|Tom Savage, Rutgers||2009||9-4|
|Matt Barkley, USC||2009||9-4|
|Matthew Stafford, Georgia||2006||9-4|
|Peyton Manning, Tennessee||1994||8-4|
|Philip Rivers, NC State||2000||8-4|
|Casey Clausen, Tennessee||2000||8-4|
|Wayne Peace, Florida||1980||8-4|
|The QBs listed played most, but not necessarily all, of their team's games as a true freshman.|
As football evolves, quarterbacks develop at younger ages and with more specialization. They have private quarterback coaches and travel across the country to compete in 7-on-7 passing events. Their playbooks often are similar to what they'll use in college. This allows a freshman to arrive on campus -- usually as an early enrollee -- more prepared than ever to do what Hurts is accomplishing.
Still, very few true freshman quarterbacks actually pull it off like this.
"I think the true freshman thing, that's just a label," said Blake Sims, who led Alabama to the playoff at quarterback in 2014 and has developed a relationship with Hurts. "If you can play, you can play. I think everybody should give him credit of that instead of saying he's a true freshman. He's a ballplayer."
That he is. Quick, name the country's only two quarterbacks who have at least six rushes of 20-plus yards and eight passes of 40-plus yards. That would be Hurts and Louisville's Lamar Jackson.
Hurts is nearly on pace for a 3,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing season as a true freshman in the SEC. He has only six turnover-worthy plays as defined by Pro Football Focus -- plays in which the quarterback committed a turnover or should have.
Hurts is completing 63.5 percent of his passes. The SEC completion record for a true freshman is 62.4 percent by Tennessee's Casey Clausen in 2000. Only Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight has more rushing touchdowns in the SEC than Hurts' eight (six of which came on designed runs).
Alabama is not asking Hurts to run the whole offense. He handles a manageable group of plays that he's comfortable executing and often runs outside, in part because of questions with the center and guards.
"I got on Jalen a couple times today, and the good thing about Jalen is that he always takes it right," Saban said last Saturday after Hurts threw for 143 yards and ran for 132 in a 49-10 win over Tennessee. "And I always ask him in the locker room, 'Should I have gotten on you?' And he said, 'Yeah.' So he agrees. He made some good throws today. He missed some throws. He missed some reads. He turned the ball over twice in the first half. Once gave them a score. One took a score off the board for us right before the half. But he's getting better every week."
Hurts is so young he doesn't do interviews yet at Alabama, which does not allow freshmen to speak with the media. It can't be overstated how impressive Hurts' success is, not only as a true freshman for Saban -- who is notoriously hard on quarterbacks -- but also while performing at the pressure-cooker that is Alabama.
"He's too young to probably even realize it now," said Jay Barker, Alabama's national championship quarterback in 1992. "He'll have an offseason and see what it means to be Alabama's quarterback and what it means to people, especially if he wins a national championship. His life will drastically change in a very good way and then he'll have to handle that. Right now, it's absolutely amazing the command he seems to have, not only over the offense, but over the team."
To be the Alabama quarterback is unlike almost any experience in college football. Football consumes the quarterback non-stop.
"It's about so much more than just playing the game," McElroy said. "It's a pressure-filled situation. A lot of guys can't handle it. You have a hard time ever being able to get away and escape football because everybody wants to talk football with you -- classmates, friends, everyone. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's constantly on your mind. It's hard to have a certain level of perspective. The game and the sport mean an awful lot at Alabama."
When McElroy struggled during a two-game stretch in 2009 inwith iwins over South Carolina and Tennessee, "everybody acted like the sky was falling," he said. "Going back and looking at it, it really wasn't that bad. But at the time it felt huge because things get magnified there. I think in 2009 we weren't as comfortable dealing with it because we hadn't been there before. I think quarterbacks there are now more comfortable to deal with everything associated with it."
Sims lived through highs and lows of as a one-year starter. Some fans expressed skepticism when he was named the starter in 2014, loved him during most of his 3,500-yard passing season that produced an SEC championship, and got frustrated with him when he threw three interceptions in a national semifinal loss to Ohio State.
"After you're named starting quarterback and then you have a good game the first game, everybody is loving you and talking about the hype," Sims said. "But one thing you know, if you lose, a lot of people's mindset changes about you. That's why we try to stay within our team because our teammates will be there regardless of if we win or lose."
Hurts was a four-star recruit from Texas who competed in powerlifting competitions in high school. With the exception of linemen, no one on Alabama's roster last spring squatted more than 555 pounds, according to AL.com. Hurts once squatted 575 pounds as a high school junior.
Hurts enrolled early last January in time to mimic Clemson's Deshaun Watson as scout-team quarterback before the national championship game. Sims said he had many conversations with Hurts when he arrived and recommended Hurts diligently learn the playbook, stay in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's ear to understand why he calls certain plays, and get to know his Alabama teammates.
"Know their backgrounds, like ask where they're from, and just pretty much know them as if that was player was your best friend," Sims said. "If I'm quarterback, I can't sit here and yell at you if you don't know me and you aren't my brother. ... I told him, 'What you need to ask yourself right now when you're by yourself or you're in the film room, what's more important -- playing this year or watching other people?' I think obviously we know the answer to that question."
Hurts didn't just win the job. He appeared to win over the team. Five-star recruit Blake Barnett, a redshirt freshman, transferred out of Alabama in September as Hurts took ownership at quarterback.
More difficult moments are inevitably ahead of Hurts in 2016. Nothing comes that easily for a true freshman. He's still an inconsistent passer who completes only 25.6 percent of his throws when under pressure, compared to 75.4 percent with no pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Obviously his ability to run is something that gives defenses a lot of problems," Saban said. "If we can continue to improve in the passing game because of the level of skill guys that we have, I think that would be something that would make a big impact on what we can do offensively."
Right now, the possibilities seem endless for Hurts and Alabama and frightening for the SEC. That's the luxury of a true freshman quarterback -- oops, a ballplayer -- who's redefining what's obtainable at a young age.
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