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Jalen Hurts: Nick Saban's First Freshman Starting QB?

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The true freshman has created quite the buzz, but can he actually start in 2016?

NCAA Football: Alabama Spring Game Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban has always done things a little differently when it came to how he runs his football program. He calls it The Process and it is a detailed system that has turned Alabama’s program into one of the greatest college football dynasties of all-time. The average fan would love to know more about “The Process”, but the simple truth is that if it was that easy to learn, everyone would do it. Out of all the mysteries surrounding what The Process entails, one of the biggest unknowns is if the system includes a rule that says you can't start a freshman quarterback.

Since Nick Saban joined the Alabama football program in the spring of 2007, he has never started a true freshman quarterback. Things such as “seniority” and “earn it” have always been mantras in Saban’s process. It’s not that Saban wouldn’t ever consider starting a true freshman quarterback, but the two things he values the most in his quarterbacks (playing smart and limiting turnovers) are difficult to grasp for a guy who was playing high school football months earlier. It’s always an up-hill battle for any young quarterback to take the reins as a true freshman, but there is the possibility that four-star signee Jalen Hurts can change that.

Hurts’ Background

Jalen Hurts is a quarterback from Channelview, TX who has a radiant personality and the confidence to come in and compete from day one. At 6’2 210, Hurts is a well-built, dynamic athlete that has dominated at every level of football he has played thus far. His senior year at Channelview, Hurts ran for 1,391 yards while also running for 25 touchdowns. With those kinds of numbers, people might assume he is just an athlete playing quarterback, but Hurts also threw for 2,384 yards while adding 26 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions.

You don’t see that from athletic quarterbacks too often. There have been comparisons to former Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, but those are lazy and inaccurate. As good as Blake Sims was during his time at Alabama, he was a running back playing quarterback. His deep ball was impressive at times, but he lacked velocity with his throws, and his touch was as inconsistent as I have ever seen from an Alabama quarterback. He made things work and almost guided Alabama to a national championship, but he was never a quarterback first. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Hurts.

What Hurts has Going for Him

Hurts first started receiving buzz this past January when he was running the scout team offense for Alabama less than two months after playing his last high school football game. He was simulating Clemson’s star quarterback DeShaun Watson in order to prepare Alabama’s defense for the upcoming national championship game, where they would face the Heisman Trophy finalist.

DeShaun Watson still gave the Alabama defense trouble in the national championship, but it was clear that Hurts was the best choice to simulate Watson’s athleticism. Like Watson earlier in his career at Clemson, Hurts shows the potential to be a rare breed of quarterback. One that can beat you with his arm, but can also put pressure on the defense by adding another runner into the mix. That’s a tough combination for any defense to face.

Analyzing Hurts’ A-Day Performance

Hurts had an up and down spring game, but overall he was a pleasant surprise. The biggest thing that stood out when I watched him was how fluid and smooth he looked in the pocket. Even when the play broke down, Hurts seemed to stay calm. He showed the ability to escape, and he did a very good job of keeping his eyes downfield and trying to extend the play rather than just take off like most young, athletic quarterbacks. A lot of times, there was nothing open when Hurts was able to escape, and he was forced to either take a sack or pick up a few yards scrambling.

On top of Hurts’ ability to extend plays and keep his eyes down field, he also displayed the ability to go through his progressions. There were multiple times that Hurts went to his second and even third reads. That is a rare trait for a young, developing quarterback. What was just as impressive was the strikes that he would deliver when he had time and would use proper mechanics. Hurts definitely has the necessary arm strength needed to play in the SEC. Even though there were a lot of good moments for Hurts, he had some bad moments as well.

The biggest issue with Hurts’ performance was the sacks he took over the course of the game. Like most young quarterbacks, Hurts needs to improve the mental side of his game. His situational awareness was poor, and he took way too many sacks instead of throwing the ball away. He needs to learn that age old saying “live to play another down” and not be an “all or nothing” type of player. If Hurts doesn’t change that aspect of his game, he will never be the starting quarterback for Nick Saban, now or in the future.

Accuracy is another issue that seemed to haunt Hurts during the A-Day game. The good part of this issue is that Hurts has the required arm strength to make all the throws, he just needs to develop more consistency with his mechanics and footwork. The windows that quarterbacks can throw in are much smaller in college, and Hurts just has to grasp that concept and adjust accordingly.

Final Thoughts

Jalen Hurts has the ability and mental makeup to be a very special quarterback. When I watch Hurts, I see a lot of similarities to current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during his time at NC State. Early on in Wilson’s career, he relied on his athleticism to make him a adequate quarterback. However, towards the end of his time at NC State and during his one-year stop at Wisconsin, Wilson was able to show that he had become a quarterback first and mainly used his athleticism to extend plays. While still very inconsistent, Hurts is already showing glimpses of these traits.

The big question remains: can Jalen Hurts win the starting quarterback job as a true freshman? The answer is yes, he absolutely can. He is still a long ways off, though. To be a successful quarterback for Nick Saban, you have to play smart and limit turnovers. Taking sacks and not being aware of your situation is not going to cut it. If Hurts can improve in those areas and continue to learn the offense, he can compete for the starting job. Whether he can actually make those corrections this early in his career remains to be seen, however.