In the post mortem following the Clemson loss, we naturally looked to an Alabama offense that had been erratic-to-bad during the season’s stretch run and into the playoffs. Particular blame was placed on a passing game that could not get it done against the Aggies, Tigers, Tigers, Gators, Huskies and Tigers of the world.
The defense, the NOTs, the punishing running game, the athletic and exciting Jalen Hurts had all obscured a multitude of sins while Alabama was blasting the first 2/3rds of its schedule — route concepts that had been oversimplified, an offense that had been stripped down and largely brought within six yards of the line of scrimmage, a passing game which provided little balance when facing an opponent with as much talent, and in the end, one that couldn’t get a late first down to seal the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship.
So, we turned to frenemy of the blog Seth Galina for answers. Being too close to the team, and the loss being too fresh, what Hurts’ play needed was an open-eyed evaluation. Seth is a quarterback coach, an occasional contributor at ATVS, and was recently hired by USA Football to develop quarterbacks. Good-natured ribbing was had at our expense, of course.
But, more importantly were the conclusions that he arrived at: Hurts is a transcendent athlete with modest passing skills; and, the types of errors that Hurts made as a first-year player are usually wrinkled out by the next season...or they never are.
Today, we’re going to look back at Jalens Hurts’ efforts as a freshman, where he seemingly had not developed much between game one and game fifteen. The next week or two, we’ll take a closer look at his work in 2017, whether as a sophomore those errors in reads and execution had improved enough through twenty-six starts, especially when compared against more polished freshmen starters like Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa.
The Big Picture:
Let’s begin with Seth’s conclusion following a review of Hurts’ freshman film:
Looking forward to next year, I’ve come to the conclusion that to be a competent college quarterback you need to be able to do at least 1 of 3 things:
A) be able to read a defense and go through your progression
B) be accurate with the ball
C) be an elite option runner
While Jalen only ticks off the “C” box for now, that’s still enough to be successful at this level. Most college quarterbacks don’t have any of those 3 traits. Will he ever be an “A” or a “B”? I’d wager no, and it has nothing to do with Jalen himself: Most quarterbacks don’t become proficient in either of those categories. If you’re looking at historical trends then you wouldn’t bet on it. I just think tempering expectations would be wise.
There are always outliers though.
General unsteadiness. Sometimes he made the right read and throw, even to secondary targets. At other times he was slow to recognize coverage. And at still other times it was an issue of making an accurate throw — his instincts are still to tuck and run.
The dig/curl is open because the corner who is matched up on #1 has to respect the deep threat so it would take him time to drive down on a dig or curl. When Hurts gets to the end of his drop, he should have made a decision on the post. If it’s open, he’ll throw it right away. It’s not, so he will then hitch up to throw the curl. The problem is that he gets spooked in the pocket, for no reason, and ends up scrambling. Yes, this still should have been a completion because of the dropped pass, but from a quarterback perspective, Hurts should have come to the dig route earlier.
Hi/Lo look: If the safety stays deep like he does here, you come down to your deep crosser which has to win across the field versus man coverage or get lost over top of the intermediate zones against zone defense. Hurts makes the right read, but the ball is awful.
The discomfort that Jalen Hurts had in staying in the pocket endured through the next two months. Part of that is his instinct to use his feet; the greater part is is the amount of time it takes to make to correct read and decided to deliver the ball. Happy Feet won a few games in 2016-2017, but it cost the Tide several easy scores and a chance to take the pressure off the defense.
This is where not being comfortable in the pocket gets you in trouble. That wheel route is wide open very early. The dropback is probably 1 crossover and a hitch to throw the wheel. You see Hurts bail out right when he gets to the top of his drop but for what purpose? Because he rolls to his left, he has to bring his whole body around to throw the ball and then it’s too late. This should be an easy touchdown.
Another time Jalen gets out of the pocket really early instead of stepping up in the pocket. For young “running” quarterbacks this isn’t an easy trait to learn. In high school, every time they bounced out of the pocket to the left or right, they ran for an easy touchdown. In college, the bigger plays are going to be when you step up in the pocket and keep your eyes downfield and then run if needed.
Again, Hurts’ issues were more related to making the right read and anticipating the play than outright poor execution. Hurts has thrown a few bad balls, sure. But most of his mechanical errors as a freshman were related to lacking general field awareness and then over-movement inside the pocket.
Alabama runs a Sail/Flood concept from an unbalanced line. The progression for Hurts is going to go from the vertical route by the split receiver to the out route by the tight end to the bubble by the receiver faking the jet sweep. The vertical route is covered by a deep defender, which would then put #32 (Budda Baker) of Washington in a bind. Commit to the sail route and the bubble is open or commit to the bubble and the sail is open. Baker makes a great play. He understands why there is a bubble route in front of his face -- because he is being baited. When Hurts gets his head around to look at the route concept after the play action, #32 is already sprinting to OJ Howard.
One of the things young QB’s don’t have is spatial recognition. As part of looking off the vertical route to come to the sail route, he has to recognize the flat player sprinting to get underneath the receiver and check down to the bubble. The field side sail route is a long throw and not many college QB’s can make that throw consistently. Unless you transform into Drew Brees during the play and can throw the receiver open to the sideline, check it down.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
From bad initial decisions:
Jalen throws the same same combo on this play but the problem with this is that he threw this pass at all. Pre-snap, to the top of the screen, he has a pretty big numbers advantage to throw the screen. You have a strong safety at 8 yards from the LOS and an “apex” linebacker. It’s basically 3v1 on that screen. I don’t know Alabama’s rule for throwing the screen but I can imagine that Clemson’s alignment in this case would give Jalen the green light to throw it.
To the indecisiveness that would leave Alabama fans tearing at their hair in 2017:
I think this ends up being a good read, but I’m not sure why Hurts doesn’t get rid of the ball sooner. There’s no replay, but we can assume some things: The corner is in bail technique and with the Alabama #3 receiver uncovered, we can assume this is cover 3. With the flood concept, the QB is going to read the low/flat defender as he’s rolling out. The Clemson defender over the Alabama #2 receiver is in his backpedal right away, so you’re thinking he’s taking away the intermediate sideline route, therefore, Hurts should have thrown to his quick out route a lot earlier.
The shallow crosser is open for a while as Clemson #34 chases his from across the formation but Hurts never pulls the trigger.
To having to run a limited offense:
This situation here, is where you get in trouble with a young quarterback who can’t make audibles. Alabama is in empty and Clemson is showing cover 0 before the snap. Showing no safeties means you’re pretty much going to get pressured with at least 5 players. The quarterback has to have an automatic check to whatever the coaches have decided is their best 1 or 2 plays against cover 0 blitz. This is where Jalen could improve going into next year as a sophomore because this is a waste of a play.
To missing easy throws:
We tell our QB’s when we have a 6 yard hitch route against a cover 3 corner, that his read is going to be whether the flat defender pauses with the inside slot route or shoots to the flats immediately. Here the Clemson flat player shuffles his feet a bit on top of the slot route, so this is a good read and terrible ball.
These are the issues that Hurts had to overcome and improve entering the 2017-2018 season. It is not meaningful to talk about Hurts’ sophomore season without realizing just how raw and undeveloped he was as a freshman.
Over the next week or two, we’ll dissect his sophomore season and see what improvements were made, what remains to be corrected, and what this all means entering Fall camp and an impending quarterback battle. We’ll also take a look at Hurts’ main competitor, Tua Tagovailoa, and even dark horse Mac Jones — who could just as easily press Hurts on the depth chart.