ATLANTA — Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is on the verge of joining one of the most exclusive fraternities in all of American sports.
A fraternity of two.
If Hurts leads the Crimson Tide to the national title over Clemson on Monday in Tampa, Florida, he'll join Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway (1985) as the only other full-time true freshman starting quarterback to lead his team to a national championship.
Prior to this season, the youngest quarterback Nick Saban had trotted out as the starter was AJ McCarron, when McCarron was a redshirt sophomore in 2011.
That season resulted in a national title for Alabama. If Saban polishes off a perfect season with Hurts at the helm, it will have a different feel.
The feel of youth masked with the mindset of a seasoned veteran.
During a phenomenal inaugural campaign in Tuscaloosa, Hurts has thrown for 2,649 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 891 yards and 12 scores. He has not only led the Tide to an unblemished record, but he has revamped the offense into an exotic, beautiful beast that stresses defenses with pro-style elements and new-school twists.
With 109 rushing yards against Clemson on Monday night, Hurts will become the only quarterback in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.
Nothing about Hurts screams "freshman." Not his mindset. Not his play. Not his success.
"I can remember a particular day. We were at fall camp," senior tight end O.J. Howard said. "We were on the field, and I think Jalen had just thrown an interception, but he came over to the sideline, and I was standing nearby. I wasn't really in the conversation—it was him and one of our strength coaches. Jalen was just so composed. He didn't let it rattle him or anything. He said, 'I'm going to bounce back. I'm good. I'm going to be all right, Coach.'"
From that moment, he was the starting quarterback of the Crimson Tide, even though he didn't take over for Blake Barnett until early in the season opener against USC. Now, he's on the brink of college football immortality: leading a team to a 15-0 record for the first time in the sport's history and becoming just the second true freshman signal-caller to win a national title.
It might be surprising to the outside world that a player this young (he's 18) can have this kind of success on some of American sport's biggest stages.
|National Championship-Winning QBs by Class (Since 1996)|
|Sports-Reference.com (includes split national titles and counts Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett toward Ohio State's 2014 championship)|
Not Hurts, though.
The son of Channelview (Texas) High School head coach Averion Hurts has prepared for these moments for years.
"People talk about how poised and how relaxed I am on the field, but I think all that comes from [my father]," Hurts said. "I told him the other day when I went home, I said, 'I am my father's child.' And that is true. He's groomed me into the person I am. He's humble. He's a competitor. And I think I resemble him in all ways, really."
Hurts developed his ability to lead through conversations with his father—mostly while they drove to and from practices in the family's red truck. Those conversations instilled in Hurts a veteran's mentality and an ability to communicate with others regardless of situation or circumstance.
"Those conversations will last forever," Hurts said. "We'd talk about girls, talk about ball, school—anything that was on his mind or my mind—and express ourselves to each other."
The experience of leading at a young age combined with the dual-threat athletic ability that made him a highly touted recruit landed him at the top of Alabama's recruiting board.
"I went and worked him out—watched him work out in the spring before he came, before he announced," former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. "I came away from watching that workout and said, 'Coach, I think this guy's a first-round draft pick.'"
Those words surprised Hurts during the lead-up to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. But he handled them as well as you'd expect by a man wise beyond his years.
"He hasn't told me, but I've heard it," Hurts said. "That's not something I let get to my head. It's a compliment, but at the end of the day, that's sort of a hype deal. You still gotta play and show it on the field."
Never was Hurts' leadership more evident than in a 24-7 win over Washington in the Peach Bowl, a semifinal of the College Football Playoff. Hurts completed just seven of his 14 passes for 57 yards and rushed for 50 more, as Kiffin tried to get him into a groove, knowing he had running back Bo Scarbrough—who finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns—in his back pocket.
Through it all, Hurts never got rattled. He didn't force passes, stayed clean in the interception column and became more of a game manager than a difference-maker—an appropriate transformation given the circumstances of the game and the inability of the Huskies offense to mount much of a threat.
That trait trickled down through the entire offense.
"We know we're not going to be able to beat a team by 50 points every night," sophomore running back Damien Harris said. "We pride ourselves on continuing to work no matter what the circumstances are. The coaches do a great job of training us throughout the year to handle any adversity or challenge that we may face."
As the Tide have ushered Hurts along, he's laid the groundwork for what should be a stellar career.
"He's a new-age quarterback," said Yogi Roth, Pac-12 Networks college football analyst. "He's a dynamic athlete who has the ability to be an accurate passer. When things break down, he isn't just an athlete who can get a couple of yards by turning into a running back."
That foundation should help Hurts—who will be working with a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian—become a Heisman Trophy candidate as early as next season.
"If he continues to develop, his upside is limitless," Roth said. "Sark being his coach now is going to be unique. He's as good at grooming guys as anybody in America, and Hurts really hasn't had much time to be developed—even during his time at Alabama."
As for the immediate future, Hurts has a chance to etch his name in college football lore—and cement one of the most remarkable seasons in the sport's history.
The Tide offense has been simplified for its star freshman quarterback. Hurts typically reads just half the field and gets only a couple of options on most passing plays. If the pass isn't there, he takes off—which is exactly what he did to score the only touchdown in a 10-0 win over LSU in early November.
That plan has impressed the coach who will be on the other sideline Monday night—Clemson's Dabo Swinney.
"He's not a freshman anymore," Swinney said on Tuesday's teleconference. "He's got a ton of experience. He's been there, done that. He's played. He's handled adversities. He's made big plays in big moments on the road, at home, you name it. I think he's an excellent young player that's just going to continue to mature, but I think they've done a great job in bringing him along and giving him what he could handle early and then kind of growing that through the season."
He'll have to do more against a Clemson defense that is allowing just 306.9 yards per game and an offense that's gaining 503.1 yards per contest.
If he does, he'll shed the "budding superstar" label in favor of one that would be far more appropriate.