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Can Oklahoma Turn Jalen Hurts Into a Heisman Candidate?

The Sooners’ last two quarterbacks were both transfers turned superstars. Now that the former Alabama signal-caller is heading to Norman, he could either solidify or crack Lincoln Riley’s reputation as a kingmaker.

The back of Jalen Hurts as he looks at the Oklahoma Sooners’ football stadium Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jalen Hurts is heading to the Heisman factory. The Alabama quarterback who won SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, got benched in the national championship game as a sophomore, and won the SEC championship game as a junior will play his final college season at Oklahoma.

Hurts became somewhat of a folk hero this season for opting to stay at Alabama after being bumped from the starting role in favor of Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts’s decision turned out to be a boon: By hanging on at Alabama instead of leaving during the year, he had an opportunity to sub in for a hobbled Tagovailoa in the SEC title game and prove that he’s still a dynamic runner who can throw the ball a bit too. But with the season over, the right move is to leave, especially considering that having graduated, he’s immediately eligible to play wherever he transfers.

His options seemed to come down to three schools: Maryland, where recent Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley just became head coach; Miami, where recent Alabama QB coach Dan Enos just became offensive coordinator, and Oklahoma, a school that Hurts had no connection to. In the end, he opted to choose the school that would maximize his potential over following two men who oversaw his benching.

Oklahoma, of course, has produced the last two Heisman winners—both of them transfers. Baker Mayfield came to the Sooners from Texas Tech as a walk-on. He produced the most efficient passing season in college football history and won the Heisman in 2017 before being picked first overall in the NFL draft. Kyler Murray came to the Sooners from Texas A&M as an apparent blue-chip bust. He eclipsed Mayfield’s efficiency mark and won the Heisman in 2018. He’ll also likely be a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft. If you’re a transferring quarterback and Oklahoma wants you, you go.

Last month I wondered how OU head coach Lincoln Riley would extend his run of exceptional quarterback play and was stumped. Would it be career backup Austin Kendall? No—Kendall has since decided to transfer to West Virginia. Would it be the top quarterback recruit in the class of 2019, Spencer Rattler? As much as I eagerly await the Rattler era, his fangs will need time to grow. Now, it’s clear: Hurts will fill in, just as Mayfield and Murray did before.

But while Hurts has the greatest on-field accomplishments of any player to transfer to Oklahoma—perhaps the greatest on-field accomplishments of any quarterback ever to transfer in college football history—he certainly seems like the least talented of this transfer trio. His ceiling as a passer has been obvious for his entire career at Alabama, as evidenced by the instant change in Alabama’s offense when Tagovailoa took over. He served as a run-first game manager who rarely threw interceptions or turned the ball over while Alabama suffocated the life of opponents on defense. That’s not necessarily going to fly at Oklahoma, a team that relies on a mega-explosive offense to win games in spite of a hole-filled defense. What can Riley do with Hurts? Can Hurts transform into a better passer than he was at Alabama? Will Hurts make Oklahoma’s devastating counter-run game the best it’s ever been?

Oklahoma has won four straight Big 12 championships, made two straight College Football Playoff appearances, and boasted two straight Heisman wins. 2019 seemed like it would be a bridge year for the Sooners, but now Riley has an accomplished quarterback to run his offense. The past two seasons have led the college football world to accept Riley as a genius, but Murray and Mayfield won Heismans because the college football world also understood that they were incredible and rare talents. So far as we can tell, Hurts is a good quarterback, but not an all-timer. We’ve seen his limitations for three seasons. For Oklahoma to keep any of those impressive streaks alive, Riley’s coaching will need to raise the ceiling Hurts seems to have.

Jalen Hurts is headed to the Heisman factory. What he does there will be the ultimate test of his skills as a quarterback—and of Riley’s as a coach.