Alabama QB Jalen Hurts Becoming a Dark-Horse Heisman Candidate

Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistOctober 16, 2016

Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was tough to stop while helping lead a 49-10 rout of Tennessee on Saturday.
Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was tough to stop while helping lead a 49-10 rout of Tennessee on Saturday.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It will quickly become a taboo word at the University of Alabama, at least in the football building, where a matching set of cast bronze trophies rest prominently on pedestals the Crimson Tide players have to walk by every day.

It’s down the hall from the where the national championship trophies are displayed, something else Alabama doesn’t talk about during a season. 

But when it comes to quarterback Jalen Hurts, it’s time for the “H” word to be mentioned. He’s not a front-runner for the most prestigious award in college football, at least not yet, and head coach Nick Saban will be the first to try to deflect attention. After all, the true freshman has enough pressure on him already.

That “H” word, of course, is Heisman, and yes, midway through October he has to be on the short list of contenders along with three other dual-threat quarterbacks—Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett—and Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers for this year’s award.

That’s just reality.

So is the feeling that Hurts is just getting started, while playing on a team that feels like it hasn’t come close to peaking yet.

It sounds incredible, but that’s the kind of season it’s been in college football. Saban’s never had a true freshman as a starting quarterback before, and some people are still trying to get used to Lane Kiffin being his offensive coordinator and the Crimson Tide calling some run-pass option plays.

To take it a step further, in the modern era of college football, only one team was led to a national title by a true freshman quarterback: Jamelle Holieway at Oklahoma in 1985.

For a third straight year, Lane Kiffin is making history as Alabama's offensive coordinator.
For a third straight year, Lane Kiffin is making history as Alabama's offensive coordinator.Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Probably the closest thing in Alabama history was Harry Gilmer (who died in August at the age of 90) putting on a show against Duke in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1944 season. He went on to finish fifth twice in Heisman voting, but as a sophomore and senior (1945 and 1947), en route to being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Similarly, only two freshmen have ever won the Heisman, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Florida State's Jameis Winston the following year, although both first redshirted. No one has ever done it as a true freshman. 

This time a year ago, Hurts was lighting up scoreboards in Texas at Channelview High School. He then enrolled early and helped play the part of Watson during Alabama’s practices for the College Football Playoff National Championship. He’s now drawing comparisons to Watson, who finished third for the Heisman last year.

While Jackson and Watson still have to be considered the front-runners, neither can be called a lock to be a finalist at this point, as there's still a lot of football to be played. Neither of their teams was particularly impressive this weekend, and one of them is going to be sitting at home when conference champions are determined and most Heisman votes cast. 

Jackson has the best numbers, but Watson won their showdown. The conditions are ripe for someone else to enter the race.

Hurts can't match either statistically or in experience, plus Clemson and Louisville both rely a lot more on their quarterbacks than Alabama. Yet Hurts has made fewer mistakes and now has four big wins over ranked teams (if you include USC in the opener).

Granted, a significant part of this has to do with being surrounded by a ton of talent, especially since no one in college football can come close to all the ways Alabama is finding to score, with 11 non-offensive touchdowns this season. But the more the Crimson Tide keep winning like this, the more his stock rises.

On Saturday, Hurts completed 16 of 26 passes for 143 yards against Tennessee, with no touchdown passes and one interception. However, he was the game’s leading rusher with 12 carries for 132 yards and three scores.

At times he did look like a freshman against the Volunteers. His sack and fumble led to Tennessee’s first touchdown, an 11-yard possession to match its total offensive yards up to that point, and his interception came when tripping off the snap. Hurts tried to turn it into a bootleg, only to have the ball deflected and picked off.

It was a mistake, but he had the wherewithal to make the tackle and potentially save another touchdown.

"I got on Jalen a couple times today, and the good thing about Jalen is that he always takes it right," Saban said during his postgame press conference. "I always ask him in the locker room, 'Should I have gotten on you?' And he said, 'Yeah.' So he agrees.

"He made some good throws today. He missed some throws. He missed some reads. He turned the ball over twice in the first half. One gave them a score, one took a score off the board for us right before the half, but he's getting better every week."

What Hurts hasn’t had to do is lead No. 1 Alabama on a game-winning drive. Really the only opponent that’s even challenged the 7-0 Crimson Tide was Ole Miss, and after falling into an early hole, the reigning national champions went on a 45-6 scoring run that held up.

He and the downfield passing game still haven’t clicked as hoped, either. Most of the passes Hurts completed against Tennessee were near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

Yet what he's done has been pretty remarkable, especially the touchdowns. He's already closing in on 20 while leading a team that scored 52, 48, 49 and 49 points against ranked opponents, all away from Bryant-Denny Stadium.

A lot of people will forget a lot of those other things, along with No. 9 Tennessee being short-handed Saturday—missing, among others, two starting offensive linemen (center Dylan Wiesman and guard Jashon Robertson) and a third going down early (left tackle Brett Kendrick), three linebackers (Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cortez McDowell and Quart'e Sapp) and a couple of defensive backs (Cam Sutton and Malik Foreman).

Their absence probably didn’t matter, though, especially with the way the game played out. Tennessee never had an answer for Alabama’s pass rush and couldn’t stop the run. With senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs unable to throw downfield, Tennessee was outgained 594-163, including 438-32 on the ground.

To put that into perspective, Alabama had five players—Hurts and running backs Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons—finish with more rushing yards than the entire Tennessee team, and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart just missed with 29.

But Tennessee also didn't have an answer for Hurts, despite placing a huge emphasis on stopping him. 

"He's a dynamic quarterback with his speed and being able to run and being able to pass," Tennessee defensive back Rashaan Gaulden said. "The hardest quarterback to face is a dual-threat quarterback in my opinion. He exploited us today in being able to get around the edge and deliver on long balls when needed."

This against the team that was thought by many to be the best in the SEC East, one that had pulled off numerous dramatic comebacks. Alabama could potentially face the Volunteers again this season, so it wasn’t about to let up once it got the lead. Guard Alphonse Taylor, who is recovering from a concussion and didn't make the trip, confirmed as much with a well-timed tweet during the second half:

What people will remember was that Alabama dominated, and Hurts looked good again in the national spotlight. Not only was this one of college football’s biggest annual rivalry games, known as the "Third Saturday in October," with the winning side celebrating with cigars, but it was also a high-profile showdown between two Top 10 teams.

"We just have to block up front for him and give him the opportunity to make plays," senior tight end O.J. Howard said of his quarterback. "You saw what happened tonight when we gave him opportunities."

A player distinguishing himself against the toughest competition is something that really stands out to most Heisman voters, and now Hurts has to be on their radar.

Last week Odds Shark had Hurts listed eighth among contenders in its Heisman Trophy odds, almost as if he were an afterthought. This win might vault him up into the top five. Should Alabama beat No. 6 Texas A&M next week as well, Hurts and the Crimson Tide will have a lot of momentum going into the final month of the regular season.

Regardless, let the Hurts hype begin.

   

Quotes were obtained from the University of Tennessee.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.