Fresh Start

September 4, 2019

Jalen Hurts transferred to the University of Oklahoma for an opportunity to start for a contender, compete for a national championship, play for head coach Lincoln Riley and improve his professional football possibilities. As the Sooners start the 2019 season, one goal has already been accomplished… Jalen Hurts is the starting quarterback.

As Hurts prepares to blaze a new path, his resume is already loaded with impressive individual accomplishments and almost unparalleled team success. After a stellar high school career at Channelview High School in Texas, Hurts signed with Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

By game two of his freshman season, Hurts had the starting quarterback job, becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide since 1984. He excelled as a dual-threat quarterback, leading the Crimson Tide to a perfect regular season, an SEC championship and a berth in the national title game. It took a last second come back by DeShaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers to prevent Hurts from winning a national title during his freshman season.

Despite the disappointment of not winning a title, Hurts was named not only the SEC Freshman of the Year but also the SEC Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and rushing for nearly 1,000 yards. His sophomore season netted similar results with Hurts leading the Crimson Tide to a 13-1 record and yet another spot in the national title game. Hurts was named the offensive MVP in the Crimson Tide’s 24-6 win over the Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl that earned the Alabama a spot in the National Title game.

Then … everything changed.

In the national championship game against Georgia, Alabama’s offense struggled in the first half. Hurts was benched and replaced by Tua Tagovailoa who led the Crimson Tide to the national championship with his second half performance. Tagovailoa won the job in 2018 and, despite going 26-2 as a starting quarterback, Hurts was relegated to back-up quarterback duty.

“Was what happened in the 2018 national championship game bittersweet? Of course, it was — it was a humbling experience. But I am even tougher for it. I am built for this,” Hurts wrote of the experience in his Players Tribune article when he announced his transfer to Oklahoma. “I understand that God put those obstacles and challenges in my life for a reason. He wanted me to feel the pain I felt for a reason. He wanted me to understand the importance of never losing faith — and of always staying true to myself. He had not brought me this far just to leave me there.”

“This isn’t something you’re stuck in,” he’d tell himself. “This is something you’re going through. And one thing I can promise you is that I’m better off for having gone through it. Everything I dealt with at Bama: I’m stronger for it. I’m wiser. I’m a better man.”

However Hurts had not performed his final act as an Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback. Despite being relegated to back-up duty during his junior season, in the SEC championship game, Alabama was struggling and Tagovailoa was injured. In that moment, Saban turned to Hurts to try and save the day and the junior responded. Despite the hurt and frustration from not playing as much as he deserved or maybe had even earned, Hurts put forth one of his best performances.

With Alabama trailing by two scores to start the fourth quarter, Hurts entered the game and led the Crimson Tide on an 80-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 28. With about a minute left in the fourth quarter, he ran for a 15-yard touchdown to give Alabama its first lead of the game. The Crimson Tide went on to win the game and earn its fifth straight birth in the four-team playoff.

“We’ve always had a lot of faith in Jalen, and I told him when we put him in when Tua got hurt, ‘it’s your time’,” Saban said after the come-from-behind win over Georgia. “He certainly took advantage of it and did a fantastic job. I’m so proud of this guy for what he’s done this year. I can’t even tell you.”

Despite the iconic moment, Tagovailoa started the next two games and Alabama eventually lost to Clemson in the national championship game.

Hurts decided to finish his career somewhere that would give him an opportunity to play. He visited with his former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley who had taken the head coach job at Maryland. He talked with Miami about the potential of joining the Hurricanes. But when it came time to make a decision, Hurts decided to choose the path of the previous two Heisman Trophy winners and number one picks in the NFL draft. He decided to transfer to the University of Oklahoma.

“As I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve been really impressed by the way he carries himself, the way he works,” Riley said at the time of Hurts transfer. “There’s not going to be much that happens to this kid that he hasn’t been through already.”

Hurts was already a known name in the world of college football when he announced he was transferring to the Sooners. The accolades and accomplishments were well documented long before he exchanged Roll Tide for Boomer Sooner. However, his first act in a Sooner uniform showed something that had not been on display much during his time in Tuscaloosa.

Hurts wowed a Friday Night spring game crowd of 50,228 Sooner fans with his performance quarterbacking the Red squad to a 35-14 win over the white squad. Hurts finished 11-14 passing for 174 yards with a touchdown. With over-analytical eyes watching every move on the field, it was what he did after a touchdown that seemed to catch the eye of not just Sooner fans but college football pundits. It was a display that showed a different side of the quiet and soft-spoken Texan.

After crossing the goal line for a short touchdown run, Hurts gathered his teammates in the corner of the end zone for a celebration photo. This was different for Hurts, and in the end, it was fun for everyone.

“Not doing that at the other place,” Hurts said, smiling and joking after the game. “My old coach, Coach Saban — I probably would get a chewing for that one.”

“I think it was fun to be out there for the first time,” Hurts said of his new team. “Any opportunity I get to step on the field, I say it’s a big deal. Anytime I get to step on the green, I try to take advantage of it.”

But Hurts was not in the midst of a coronation. He still had to win the starting job. Despite the impressive performance in the spring game, this was a competition between Hurts the transfer, five-star freshman Spencer Rattler, and Tanner Mordecai, who was in the system for an entire season last year.

“One of them’s got to go win it,” Riley said at Big 12 Media Days in Arlington in July. “We’ve got an interesting dynamic in there with Jalen as an older, more experienced guy that’s been through a lot of battles, and we’ve got some very young, talented players in there with a chance to make a name for themselves. It’s really, truly, ‘may the best man win.’”

Hurts understood and embraced the competition. And despite all the on the field success in his past, he realized that this was a fresh start, a clean slate.

“My past success, the things I have done and achieved, those don’t help us win any games (at Oklahoma) in the fall,” Hurts said. “I think the biggest thing for us is creating an identity for ourselves, finding out who we are as a team and then, ultimately, playing ball and getting things done in all phases of the organization this year.”

While expectations were understandably high at Alabama, the expectations of being a transfer quarterback at the University of Oklahoma under Riley are equally as high. Hurts has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. The expectations of being a quarterback under Riley at the University of Oklahoma are as high as you could imagine. With high expectations, Hurts does have one major advantage over his Heisman winning predecessors.

“He brings game experience that Baker and Kyler did not have when they got here, but also doesn’t have as much experience in the system,” Riley said. “It has been quicker but it’s been fun. There have been things that we do that he’s been able to trace back to different things that he’s done at Alabama or even in high school. So, it’s not like you’re starting from scratch. It’s a fun process. He’s a smart kid. He’s eager and works very hard at it, and we have meshed together well.”

The questions centering around Hurts at Oklahoma have mostly centered around fit. Will Riley have to change or adjust his offense based on Hurts’ skill set? Despite the perceived struggles that Hurts could have with the Sooners’ offensive approach, Riley does not anticipate any adjustments based on what Hurts either can or cannot do.

“All of the previous (quarterbacks) had things they liked and didn’t like,” Riley said at Big 12 Media Days. “I think every quarterback on earth has that. Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler (Murray) were different skill sets and we could do a lot with them. If Jalen does win the starting job from everything I’ve seen, I’m not sure there’s anything we’ve done before I wouldn’t do with him.”

Through all the questions and all the personal adversity, Hurts landed the Oklahoma Sooner starting quarterback position. As the season kicks off, Hurts has the third best odds to win the Heisman Trophy. In his career, he has already won a national title, played in two more and has thrown for 5,600 yards and 48 touchdowns. Hurts has also rushed for 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Those 23 rushing touchdowns stand as an Alabama career record at the quarterback position.

The book based on the career of Hurts could easily be written based on his current resume. The 30 for 30 could end with the incredible story of bringing a team back to win an SEC Title. But Hurts wanted more, and in 2019, he has the opportunity to do something at Oklahoma, to not only add another chapter to his incredible career autobiography, but also to the incredible history of Oklahoma football. The final chapter is just waiting to be written. – BSM