Jalen Hurd Is Confident His Multimillion-Dollar Gamble Will Pay Off at BaylorJuly 13, 2018
WACO, Texas — He's either a selfless teammate who put his body on the line week after week or a loner who abandoned his team.
He's either wise to have walked away from millions in the NFL to reinvent himself as a player and open the door to a longer career in the league or selfish and foolish for deciding to chase an impossible dream.
"Heard it all," Jalen Hurd says, shaking his head in resignation, and there's little doubt that part of him wonders why he agreed to this interview in the first place.
He has kept a low profile by choice, from his last day as anointed savior of the Tennessee program to his now-welcomed obscurity at a Baylor program left for dead—for a couple more months, anyway.
Because when football begins in September, when Jalen Hurd 2.0 is reintroduced to college football and the one-time, can't-miss, 6'4", 240-pound prototype NFL tailback re-emerges as a sleek and sinewy 220-pound wide receiver, those same weighty expectations he left in the rearview mirror in Knoxville will find him again.
"He's going to play a long time in the NFL—as a wide receiver," says Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, who in January turned down the Indianapolis Colts job to stay in the college game. "He will be an elite wide receiver."
Rhule makes that statement without a hint of hesitation, a surprise considering how Hurd got here. His journey—from legendary high school recruit, to star tailback on pace to set a boatload of school records, to everything and everyone turning on him—makes this last chance at Baylor all the more meaningful.
He has one more season of college football at a brand-new position, with millions of dollars on the line.
"All he had to do was finish out that last season at Tennessee, and he gets picked in the middle of the first round, and he's making a lot of money," an NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "Now there's a lot of questions."
When he is told of the scout's assessment, Hurd runs his hands through his tightly cropped hair and takes a deep breath. Why do you walk away from the certainty of a multimillion-dollar contract, take a nearly two-year sabbatical from the game you have played since you were 6 years old, to change positions and play for a program that won once in 2017?
"I didn't just do this on a whim. I researched it," Hurd said. "Running backs last 3.5 years in the NFL. Wide receivers can last 10 or more years. Receivers are more valued than running backs in the NFL, and I can play this game a lot longer and can be more valuable as a receiver. It's not just a position and career change, it's a life change.
"Baylor is reinventing itself; I'm reinventing myself. We both have a lot to prove."
It's a multimillion-dollar gamble.
After the season opener in 2016, after grinding out another 100-yard game and adding to his 2,000-plus yards in his first two years at Tennessee, Hurd began to seriously consider a career change.
His body ached after an overtime victory over Appalachian State. It was a punishing reminder of his pinballing between the tackles while absorbing the blows that came with those 28 rushing attempts.
He had been carrying the ball, carrying a team, since he first suited up for the Goodlettsville Trojans as a 6-year-old, a mere 20 minutes from Nashville, deep in the heart of Big Orange country. If anyone was going to be a Vol, if anyone would have a street named after them next to Peyton Manning Pass and Tee Martin Drive, it was Hurd.
Until it wasn't.
"The way I took impact that game and the way I felt after was completely different than any other time," Hurd said. "I take care of my body. I know what's going on. After two years of pounding ... I could tell this was taking a toll on my body. When you're 20 years old, that's not a good thing to say."
Hurd pauses here for reflection.
Football is a violent, unforgiving sport. It's also addictive: a rush that can't be replaced, a void that can't be filled. Unless you've tasted it, unless you've bathed and invested in it, there's no explaining it. That's what made this revelation so powerful.
"I woke up and thought, this isn't going to last," Hurd continued. "It could have lasted, but do you really want to cause that much harm to your body?"
Hurd went to the Tennessee staff and asked to be used more on the perimeter and less between the tackles. He thought, who is going to cover, or bring down by himself, a 240-pound tailback in space? The move also would get him more touches as a receiver—the position he quickly realized was his future in the NFL.
The staff nixed the idea, saying he was too important to the running game. He had 63 carries over the next three games and 10 in the fifth contest (against Georgia) before suffering a concussion early in the third quarter and leaving the field. Then it all came unglued.
In the state of Tennessee, among the Big Orange faithful, Hurd's fall from grace went like this. He was benched by coach Butch Jones during the Georgia game after celebrating a touchdown; a week later, when he was held out of the Texas A&M game (under concussion protocol and with a season-long ankle injury that was never disclosed), he became a "quitter" and a "locker room cancer."
Two weeks later, he pulled himself from the South Carolina game, and his Tennessee career was over.
"There's a sign in the locker room that we all touched before heading to the field that says, 'I will give my all for Tennessee,'" a former Vols assistant told Bleacher Report. "If any guy gave his all for that program, it was [Hurd]. He played hurt. He played hard. He did everything he was asked. We started 5-0, then lost three straight, and everyone wanted a fall guy. Guess who that guy was?"
The same guy who, when he arrived for his official recruiting visit to Tennessee, was so popular that he needed security to leave a Vols game. The same guy who, while in a health class at Tennessee, had a student walk up to him with a football to sign—in the middle of a test.
The same guy who carried that ball 589 times in two-and-a-half seasons—primarily between the tackles in a zone-read offense, without a lead blocker—and suddenly in the eyes of Vols fans wasn't needed anymore after his backups, John Kelly and Alvin Kamara, proceeded to feast on lower-tier SEC defenses, an FCS school (Tennessee Tech) and a gutted Nebraska program to finish the 2016 season.
"Personally between me and him, I felt there was some animosity when I got there," said Kamara, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year last season with the New Orleans Saints. "I was fresh out of Alabama, fresh out of [Hutchinson Community College]. I had a whole different outlook, like where I go, I'm gonna be successful, period—no matter what the circumstance is."
As his role grew larger, Kamara said he sensed that Hurd felt his was "becoming smaller and smaller."
Said another Vols assistant: "I love Alvin to death. He's a great player. He deserves everything he gets. Alvin likes to talk; that feeling of disrespect fuels him. To say Jalen was anything but a team guy busting his ass just isn't truthful."
He had already visited Ohio State and Louisville, and he was driving to California to work with his trainer when he called Baylor and asked if he could stop by.
"Out of the blue," Baylor assistant coach Evan Cooper said. "He gets here, and we show him the campus; he meets and talks with the coaches and goes back to the hotel. Four hours, tops. Later that night, I get a call, he says: 'Hey, coach, I'm coming. I don't need to see anything else.' A few months later, after the first day of fall camp, we all look at each other like, he's better than we ever could've imagined."
Before he stepped onto a practice field at Baylor, Hurd told Rhule he wanted to make one thing clear: He was no different than anyone else. He'd run scout team, and he wanted others to hit him.
"That's not someone who's running from contact," Rhule said. "That's not someone who isn't a team guy."
That's someone who, knowing the intricacies of the position change and the short time frame to make it happen, accepted the additional burden of running on the scout team while trying to complete a difficult transition.
This isn't simply catching a ball and running after the catch. It's staying late after practice and catching thousands of balls from the Jug machine until it becomes second nature. It's shedding 20 pounds without losing strength and speed.
It's changing the way you think about the game. From the way you line up, to the way you explode from breaks, to a basic speed cut.
Since his high school days, Hurd had always changed direction with a two-step box cut to shake a defender. Receivers use one-step speed cuts, which eliminate an extra step and increase explosion.
But when you're running through three levels of SEC defenses without a lead blocker and you're getting hit from defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs, the only way out is a box cut.
For the last year, every time Hurd walked around a corner or a building on campus or when he had to turn, he did it planting off one foot.
He had to learn how to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage without affecting the timing of his route. He learned how to highpoint the ball and about leverage with his strong frame that's inching closer to 6'5".
He watches hours and hours of game tape: of specific offenses and defenses, of himself in practice, of other receivers in college and professional football.
One night, he found a red-zone move used by former Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant. He would allow a cornerback to stay close to his body. He would then reach over him at the last possible highpoint moment and snatch the ball. A day later, Hurd had mastered it on the practice field.
He'll likely start out at inside receiver at Baylor but will line up at every wide receiver spot. He'll also return punts.
That's right, return punts.
"That all sounds good, but I've got to see it consistently in practice, in a game," another NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "We see guys change from running back to wide receiver all the time. It's rare when he becomes an elite receiver. In fact, I haven't really seen it. I know what Jalen was as a tailback. A damn good tailback. I have no idea what he is now."
The alarm rang every morning at 4, rousting him from bed only to reaffirm another day of stark change ahead. Another day to prove everyone wrong.
He'd hop in his car and drive 45 minutes from Chino Hills to Santa Ana and roll up on Robert Paulele's gym, where college and NFL players train.
"First thing he said to me was 'people think I'm crazy for doing this,'" Paulele said. "I told him, either way you swing it, you're creating stock for yourself. You're saying, 'I know what my value is, what my potential is, and if you don’t like it, I will find someone who does.' That’s kind of gritty. I like it."
By the time he left California to enroll at Baylor, he had completely reshaped his body. He looked more like Calvin Johnson than Derrick Henry.
Then the Baylor staff timed him and put him through drills, and the results were astounding.
He squatted more than 500 pounds, and his vertical jump was 40 inches (this year's NFL combine-best was 41.5). His 40 time was consistently in the 4.4 range, and his 20-yard shuttle—the one combine test scouts say is a critical predictor for skill players' change of direction and explosion—was 3.8 and 3.9 (the recent best is 3.81 in 2006).
"Wait, don't put that in the story because we'll look stupid," Cooper says.
But he ran 3.8?
"He absolutely did," Cooper says. "You'll write this story, and in your mind, I'm sure you're thinking, Man, they're making all of that up. And then after he has a big season, after he's in the Heisman Trophy race, after he goes to the combine and he's the hit of the show there, you're going to say, 'I should've listened to those guys at Baylor.' I'm telling you, we got away with highway robbery. Literally, this might be the most talented player I have ever seen."
When it all went down in Tennessee two years ago, Hurd called his best friend, Hunter Rivait, to talk about all that had transpired. Rivait was there when Hurd ran for 394 yards and seven touchdowns to lead Beech High to the Class 5A state championship. He was there with Hurd in the suites at Neyland Stadium during a recruiting trip, when then-coach Butch Jones filled them full of exquisite food and the hopes and dreams of rewriting the fortunes of Tennessee football.
Everything would change when Hurd, one of the nation's top five recruits, committed. Other elite recruits would follow, and Tennessee football would ascend back to the top of the SEC.
Three years later, the only person more hated at Tennessee was a guy named Lane Kiffin.
"I told him a lot of feelings for many people were misconstrued because they didn't know the facts of the situation," Rivait said. "That stuff is noise, but belief and truth outweighs all."
It's unseasonably hot in Waco on this day. A storm is rolling through, and the spring game might just be cancelled. Not that Hurd was playing anyway.
"We know what he can do," Rhule said. "No need for him to run around out there."
He smiles like he knows something no one else does.
"Maybe it's best if no one sees him until the season opener," he says.
The multimillion-dollar gamble might just be worth the wait.
B/R's Master Tesfatsion contributed to this article.