TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For four days, he got a taste of what it’s really like to be on a national championship team, and he didn’t disappoint.
Because the University of Alabama was still playing football when the early enrollees from the recruiting class of 2016 could sign their scholarships and start preparing for classes, quarterback Jalen Hurts was able to practice with the team during its on-campus workouts for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
But he didn’t just sit around and watch. Coaches told Hurts to come in ready to go because he would have a pretty important role as the Crimson Tide prepared to face Clemson, helping to play the part of Deshaun Watson for the scout team.
“It felt good knowing that I was getting after it against the No. 1 [actually No. 3] defense in the country,” he said. “It also felt good to know that I helped in preparation for winning the national title, that I had a little something to do with that. It was a great experience.
“I guess I was officially a member of the program, so it felt good to be a part of something great like that.”
Although Hurts wasn’t the only player filling that role, as it was the primary responsibility of Blake Barnett, the two rotated depending on what the coaches wanted.
Hurts compared it to sticking his toe into the college football waters, learning firsthand what it meant to be evaluated by the Crimson Tide coaching staff on a daily basis.
“Really pleased with the quarterback prospect we have,” head coach Nick Saban said.
Of Alabama’s early enrollees, Hurts may be the most intriguing not only because of his style of play as a dual-threat quarterback but the wide range of opinions on his potential.
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The one consistent evaluation among the major recruiting services was that he’s a 4-star prospect, resulting in a No. 3 national ranking at his position and No. 176 overall ranking.
He was rated the top dual-threat quarterback in the nation by 247Sports' own evaluations but seventh (among all QBs) by Scout.com, ninth by Rivals.com and 13th by ESPN.com. That led to national rankings of No. 104 on 247Sports, No. 154 on Scout.com, No. 231 on Rivals.com, and he wasn’t listed in the ESPN300.
Part of that discrepancy probably has to do with the way he was used in high school. Hurts passed for 2,371 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 games as a senior while also rushing for 1,393 yards and 25 more scores.
He passed more (2,545 yards and 21 touchdowns) and ran less (951 yards and 19 scores) as a junior.
“I had to [run more] as a senior because we didn’t have an every-down running back like we did the year before,” Hurts explained. “My junior year, I scrambled more than designed runs. As a senior, I got a few more quarterback draws and things of that sort.”
When asked which he prefers, Hurts said, “I’m going to do whatever coach asks me to do.”
Regardless, there’s no denying that Hurts is a top-notch athlete, and he also hails from a sports-oriented family. Older brother Averion just finished his freshman season at Texas Southern and passed for just under 1,000 yards. The father was their high school coach, but Hurts isn’t about to take on either of his parents in basketball. They can still shoot.
“I grew up watching my brother,” Hurts said. “He’s shorter than I am. I watched him and kind of went after his game. He’s not as mobile as I am and can’t do the things I can do. But he is my hero; I look up to him.”
While Averion is listed as 6’0”, Jalen’s 6’2” frame was enough to draw national attention—especially from Southeastern Conference schools that are known for their dual-threat attacks.
In the end, he was considering Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Florida, but Hurts eventually didn’t base his decision on what offensive scheme each team was running. He preferred what Alabama could offer both on and off the field.
“What got me here was the program,” he said. “You come to Alabama, you have to compete every day in everything you do. Every day here is an evaluation—you’re being evaluated. I have no problem with that. Everything is about competition. You come here, you’re going to do what’s best for the team. That’s being the best player.”
What put Alabama over the top was what it did in 2014 with Blake Sims. With offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin gearing the offense to best suit his quarterback and obviously get the ball to wide receiver Amari Cooper as often as possible, Alabama set numerous program records en route to winning the SEC Championship.
Hurts could envision himself doing something similar.
“When you see Blake Sims, it was only right that I look at that and say I could possibly have a shot here,” he said. “Anything is possible.”
Like with Sims, it’s probably going to be a while before Hurts can put himself into position to challenge for the starting job. With Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Barnett poised to start a three-man race in the spring barring a rash of injuries, he’ll most likely spend the 2016 season running the scout team full time.
But he’ll still be in the mix and competing, which are the important things, and Hurts knows he has a lot to learn.
Consequently, considering what he’s already been through, the rest of what will likely be a redshirt year could be gravy—or “snow crabs and catfish,” as Hurts put it. His favorite part of campus life so far has been the meals.
He plans on eating a lot of them while trying to add five pounds to get his playing weight up to 217.
“You never go hungry here,” he said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.