In January 2016, Jalen Hurts had left his mom and dad in Channelview, Texas and taken a lonely plane trip to Tuscaloosa to join the other early enrollees. Alabama was losing 5th-year senior Jake Coker soon, and the quarterback competition was thought to be wide open. But, Jalen’s dreams were big: he wanted to be the star quarterback, and sooner rather than later.
With less than a week before the Tide suited up for its 45-40 classic over Clemson, Alabama was in need of someone who could try to replicate the skills that the lethal Deshaun Watson would test them with. Enter that 17 year-old kid who just a month earlier had been playing Texas 5A ball. Watson torched the Alabama secondary in the second half, but the defense made enough plays when it counted to secure the win. After the game, Coach Saban singled out young Jalen Hurts’ work on the scout team as absolutely crucial to the Tide’s victory.
Three months later, the Tide opened Spring camp with a host of competitors for its open QB spot, and there were really just three competitors at the time: big-armed-but-common-sense-challenged David Cornwell; cerebral-and-athletic-but-limited Cooper Bateman; and who we thought would be the heir apparent, the prize of Lane Kiffin’s recruiting efforts, arrogant-but-talented Blake Barnett. Then there was this Jalen Hurts kid.
During the A-Day game we saw the pattern that would play out in the Fall: Barnett made easy mistake followed by great throws, Cooper Bateman’s limited athleticism, and QB play that failed to generate any movement. In came the true freshman, Hurts, who frankly stole the show. On a day the offenses struggled, Hurts eluded two certain sacks, made plays with his legs, and went 11 of 15 for 120 yards and tallied the game’s only score, as his white team prevailed 7-3.
At the time, we noted how raw Jalen was, but how exciting he was too, saying “whatever ‘it’ is, he’s got it.”
August rolled around and seemingly the only one that had progressed was Jalen. Bateman was still too limited. Cornwell had the talent but not the headspace. Barnett was still impatient with the ball, was rubbing his teammates wrong, and, worse, was a turnover machine in practice -- trusting one’s arm too much is a liability in a ball control offense.
There were serious rumblings after Barnett’s fifth turnover in two scrimmages that the impossible could happen: For the first time in 30 years, and the first time in Saban’s coaching career, a Freshman could start at QB. We agonized about it on this site, as did others. The calculus was: do you trust Barnett more with this defense? Or, if Jalen is the future, why not play him and take your lumps -- the defense can bail you out.
It was an open question until fifteen minutes before the Labor Day kickoff vs. USC: Blake Barnett would be the starter. Unfortunately, he could not move the ball against the active Trojan defense. Alabama found itself trailing 3-0 late in the first quarter.
Jalen Hurts got the nod to enter the game. Then, on his first collegiate snap, he fumbled the ball. To the coaching staff’s credit, they put him back in: they said he had the team’s confidence; they said he was unshakeable.
He was. And not only did Hurts rebound in that game, he would do it 14 more times.
We know how the year panned out. Far from “taking our lumps,” Jalen Hurts was phenomenal much of the season. He had game-changing plays against LSU and Clemson; he dominated the Volunteers and Mississippi State; he had a difference-making games versus Ole Miss and Auburn; and, at one point in early November, he was a legitimate Heisman candidate.
Did Jalen have limitations? Was he a raw passer? Did the coaching staff not develop him enough? Was he too risk averse? Yes to all of those.
But, despite those knocks on his development, Hurts was not only a lights-out player, but also the undisputed leader of the offense. Alabama’s offensive identity runs through him.
And he has been awarded for that play.
Hurts was named First-Team All-SEC, Freshman All-American, and the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year, the first freshman to do so since Herschel Walker. He was the first player in Alabama history to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. He appeared on the cover of SI and broke Steadman Shealy’s record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
His stat line was absurd for a freshman. The 6’2”, 220-pound power lifter completed 63% of his passes for 2751 yards. He tossed 23 touchdowns to just 9 picks. On the ground he racked up 13 touchdowns and 954 yards; rushing for 100+ yards in four games.
And, he set an Alabama single-season scoring record with his 36 touchdowns.
As they like to claim in the Lone Star State, everything is bigger in Texas. That rings true for Hurts: big arm, big athleticism, big personality, big brains, big motivation.
Ultimately, a big upside and an even bigger impact.
And he’s still 18 years old.
36 days ‘til Alabama football.