By Brien O’Donal
Alabama won the final game of the college football season with a Houston Area native leading the way for all but the last two quarters. In two seasons for the Crimson Tide, Jalen Hurts has made fans out of a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t care about Alabama football. So it’s with no surprise that I offer an opinion on the fate of a local hero who just won a College National Championship in his second attempt as just a sophomore.
I gave it a day for the excitement of it all to settle in. I didn’t want to immediately jump into this argument after Alabama’s amazing victory over Georgia in overtime, but it’s something I’ve thought about since the start of the 4th quarter Monday night. I may have witnessed the end of the Jalen Hurts era in Tuscaloosa–or maybe I haven’t.
The 19 year old who took the world by storm in the 2016 season by leading Alabama to an undefeated regular season and within one second of the championship over Clemson may be out after a 25-2 record as a starter (I won’t count this years final game because he was upside down on the scoreboard before being benched at halftime), though it’s difficult to fathom considering what he’s accomplished on the field.
But anyone who saw how Tua Tagovailoa was able to put that game on his arm and lead the Crimson Tide to a victory can’t deny he has the ability to add to Alabama’s offense, not take away. His passing may be something Nick Saban needs to take his play calling to the next level.
I’m not sure it’s so cut and dry.
One of the greatest assets of having Jalen Hurts on the field is his ability to run the football, a hallmark of the Alabama powerhouse. In his two years he has rushed for 1,809 yards and 21 touchdowns. He did this by being a quarterback in the body of a running back. His physicality and skill set fit right into the road grading offense and the punishing defense that gets them in the championship conversation every year.
The real question is: do I think Nick Saban will change?
I don’t think he will. He just won his 5th National Championship in 9 years at Alabama with pretty much the same formula. Run the ball and stop the run. It’s pretty basic stuff that he has done that much better than everyone else.
Hurts won his spot on the roster by being able to run the ball from the quarterback position like Deshaun Watson, the opposing quarterback the Tide defense was facing in the Championship Game in January 2016–just after he arrived on campus. Not only does he have the moves of a tailback, he also has the power. It’s well documented that he is a power lifter that can squat more in the weight room than some of his lineman. That’s not something a power running offense can simply toss aside because the new guy has a live arm.
College football is very rarely about the quarterback who can throw the ball better than the other one. It helps to have a guy with a big arm, but more often than not it’s the ground game that wins at this level. That’s why I’m not entirely sure Hurts is out at Alabama.
What he gives them on the ground might outweigh what Tagovailoa gives them in the air. We saw that Tagovailoa has some ability to scramble but he doesn’t have the size and power of Hurts. His biggest asset was the ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly. While it flashed big in the second half of the National Championship Game, I’m not sure I believe Saban will see it the same in the big picture.
In 636 career pass attempts, Hurts has only thrown 10 interceptions against 40 touchdowns. That’s a pretty low rate. Last year he fumbled 11 times and lost 5 while this year saw that rate drop to 4-2. If Saban suddenly decided to start chucking the ball all over the field with a young quarterback; how much more vulnerable does his team become?
Jalen Hurts will have the chance to reclaim his spot next year, but he will have to show some improvement in the passing game. I thought he would do so from his first year to this one, but if he did it wasn’t much. If he wants to hold on to his starting spot he will have to improve a lot before the next season gets under way.
And this is where the question gets murky. I grew up in Channelview Texas on the East side of Houston. That happens to be the high school where Jalen Hurts played before he left for Tuscaloosa. When I watched him play on Friday nights I saw a kid who had the ability to take over the game. Knowing the school and how it has fared over the years, it was awesome for me to witness him lead them into the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years. The problem is that I don’t see a big difference in the Jalen Hurts of Channelview High School 2015 and the one that played for Alabama in 2017.
I’m not a big believer in Nick Saban as a developer of quarterbacks so it’s no surprise Hurts hasn’t quite improved. But does it help them to bring in a player who already has the goods? That’s a possibility. If his offensive coordinator can handle the balance between clock control and air raid offense then maybe Tagovailoa has a chance. If Hurts can improve his ability to open up the passing game when necessary then maybe he has a chance.
There’s also the chance that Jalen does the shocking thing and skips town. He began his college career in January of 2016 and just finished his true sophomore season. That means that under NCAA rules he can transfer schools, sit a season, and then play for another season. If he really felt like his job was in jeopardy because of one half of football he could move on and no one would suffer the consequence. He could also pull a surprise and change to a different position. He has the skills to pull off either of these moves.
I guess in the end there is no clear answer about the end of Jalen Hurts. He has options in front of him. If he decides to stick it out in Tuscaloosa I think he has a good shot at keeping his starting quarterback job. I believe that because Saban loves running the ball and controlling the clock. If Hurts proves himself to be the guy that can do that without turning the ball over then maybe he keeps it. But if the new guy comes into camp and looks like he will take his job then maybe he moves to a different position or onto a different school.
I don’t think the latter will be his choice. His athleticism and build gives him the ability to change positions like other players before him. If he doesn’t go that route then he will have to decide what his fate will be. I’m not sure if it’s the end of Jalen Hurts as the Alabama quarterback or the end of him at Alabama but I’m sure it’s not the end of him as a player on a national scene. He just has too much talent.