TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Poise.
That’s the word associated with University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts this season.
His demeanor during a game almost never changes. He scores a touchdown or throws an interception, and he’s pretty much the same.
It’s remarkable for someone who was only 17 years old when he arrived on campus as an early enrollee in January and helped the Crimson Tide prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He then beat out three older quarterbacks to become the starter, just after turning 18 in August.
“We were impressed with him from the word 'go,' and we recruited him that way, and he’s certainly panned out to be very effective for us,” head coach Nick Saban said. “We didn’t expect him to have to start as a freshman, but he’s handled that fairly well.”
Actually, to say that his progression has been remarkable may be an understatement, and not because every other quarterback Saban’s had at Alabama redshirted.
With this team especially, Hurts’ emergence stands out. Alabama’s roster is simply loaded with former 5-star recruits who are turning into prime NFL prospects, yet they’re primarily led by a player who’s closer to the legal driving age than the legal drinking age.
Specifically, Scout rated 14 players on Alabama's roster as 5-star recruits (other services have more); there are 14 starters and 46 remaining lettermen from last year's national championship team; and on his latest big board for the 2017 NFL draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had six Crimson Tide players in his top 36. Having been ranked No. 1 at some point of every season since 2008, this is the biggest of the college football giants.
“I call this place the Roman army, and he’s leading the Roman army,” private quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. said.
While that analogy could potentially make Saban the college football equivalent of Julius Caesar, there’s no denying that Alabama has been doing a lot of conquering during its ongoing dynasty.
Yet this is different. Granted, since 2009, Alabama's first-year quarterbacks have a combined record of 61-4, and three out of the previous four won national championships. The other, Blake Sims, captured an SEC title in 2014.
Hurts? He was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama in 32 years, since Vince Sutton in 1984. Yet Hurts doesn’t play like it or act like it, despite still being in the early stages of his collegiate career.
“He definitely has the team’s trust,” junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said.
That didn’t happen overnight.
For his teammates, it goes back to those four days of on-campus practices for Clemson, before Alabama left for Arizona. Both Hurts and Blake Barnett, who had been an elite recruiting prospect in the Class of 2015, played the part of Deshaun Watson with the scout team.
If that wasn’t enough of an initiation in Hurts' first days with the Crimson Tide, imposing defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed weren’t known for adhering to the no-contact status of quarterbacks during live drills.
Hurts hadn’t even been to a class yet, but even then the players and coaches—including then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who said, “He’s done a great job, a kid that just got in here”—were talking about his potential.
“It was a great experience,” Hurts said on national signing day in February, during his only interview at Alabama (Saban gives reporters access to early enrollees on national signing day, but freshmen are otherwise off-limits during the regular season).
“It felt good knowing that I was getting after it against the No. 1 defense in the country. 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.”
Over the spring, Hurts worked his way into the quarterback competition that was supposed to be between Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. Through the summer, he proved to be both a workout warrior in the weight room and a fast learner.
Saban repeatedly said he wanted one of the quarterbacks to win over the team, just like what had happened the previous two years with Sims and Jake Coker. With each passing day, Hurts started to look less like a long shot to win the starting job.
That he even played in the opener against No. 20 Southern California was groundbreaking, even though his first snap resulted in a fumble that the Trojans recovered. Hurts simply kept going, and with the 52-6 victory, he had emerged as the front-runner.
“He never shakes, he never flinches,” sophomore running back Damien Harris said. “He just gets up and plays the next play. He just shows incredible toughness each and every down."
If there was a single moment when it was clear Hurts had completely won everyone over, it was at Ole Miss. True freshman right tackle Jonah Williams missed an assignment and slid the wrong way, giving quarterback hunter Marquis Haynes a free shot.
The defensive end simply crushed Hurts, helmet first, resulting in a fumble that was recovered and returned 44 yards for a touchdown by defensive end John Youngblood.
“He got rocked on that sack,” Saban said.
When Hurts got up, he didn’t yell or show up his lineman. He didn’t point fingers, berate or belittle anyone on the sideline. Alabama was down 24-3 at the time, with the Ole Miss fans deafeningly loud, and the quarterback had hurt his wrist. Yet he acted like the game was still scoreless.
"He was just like, ‘You know, I still got y’all’s back. Y’all got mine. Let’s keep rolling,'" junior center Bradley Bozeman said. "He didn't let it affect him at all."
Alabama subsequently went on a 45-6 run to win Hurts’ first SEC road game, and he was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week.
“He’s putting the team on his back and showing everyone that we can count on him,” safety Eddie Jackson said at the time. “We have a lot of respect for that.”
Just over a week later, Barnett announced his decision to transfer.
Since then, Hurts has continued to impress in a variety of ways, like not losing his cool when an Arkansas player pinned him to the ground by his neck or scoring an amazing 37-yard touchdown run against No. 6 Texas A&M.
|Jalen Hurts' Game-By-Game Statistics|
|at Ole Miss||19-31-0||158||0||104.1||18-146||0|
How he’s able to do so on such an even keel almost certainly has to do with his upbringing and growing up in a sports house. Everyone in his family is athletic, including his older brother Averion, a senior who is the starting quarterback at Texas Southern. They both played football for their dad at Channelview High School in Texas.
“Coaches’ sons are incredibly well-versed,” Whitfield said. “They just get it, they understand the nuances, the diligence, especially when that’s your dad. I was the son of a coach, and I know a lot of quarterbacks who played whose fathers were coaches. You just take on the game a little bit differently. That can’t be overstated.”
Although Saban, who was a coach's son himself, isn’t ready to go that far and proclaim the father-son relationship as the key component in Hurts’ initial success, he called his quarterback “a guy who has a great presence about him,” which rubs off on teammates.
“He just doesn’t get flustered by many things,” Saban said. “You can correct him. He wants to absorb. Some guys get a little bit defensive when you correct him or try and get on him; he wants to do it right, he wants to do it better. When bad things happen, he just looks toward the next play.”
And that’s how, one by one, Hurts won everyone over, even the older teammates who had been playing together for years and already amassed impressive ring collections.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.