In a system that limits athlete eligibility to four or five seasons, Jalen Hurts has lived a thousand college football lives.
He was a superstar freshman at Alabama; then he was a forgotten upperclassman. He was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year; all of a sudden he was the second-best quarterback on his own team. He was the guy who had to be benched for his team to win the big game; he became the savior who came off the bench to rally his team to a conference championship. He was hoisted as a shining example of why college athletes shouldn’t be so quick to switch schools—right before he became the most accomplished player in college football history to ever transfer. He’s changed his uniform number, his hairstyle, and his mind-set. Now he’s been reborn, thriving in his final college season as a graduate student at Oklahoma.
Hurts’s career is unlike any in college football history, and it’s brought him to a situation unlike any in college football history. He has emerged as the third straight Sooners quarterback to pilot a record-setting offense after arriving via transfer. The first, Baker Mayfield, was an undersized walk-on who spent a couple of years in head coach Lincoln Riley’s program, won the Heisman Trophy, and became the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The second, Kyler Murray, was even shorter than Mayfield and seemed set to play professional baseball after signing a multimillion-dollar contract with the Oakland A’s. He also won the Heisman Trophy and became the top pick in the 2019 NFL draft. No school had produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners since Army in 1945 and ’46, and no school had produced back-to-back no. 1 draft picks since USC in 1968 and ’69. And yet Hurts entered this fall with almost no NFL draft consideration and the third-best Heisman odds, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who won last season’s national championship, and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who replaced Hurts in the previous season’s national championship and became a legend.
Six weeks into this season, however, that pecking order has changed. Hurts has scored 21 touchdowns (14 passing, seven rushing) while throwing just two interceptions, and Oklahoma has gone 5-0 with an average margin of victory of 34.4 points. The Sooners lead the country in offensive SP+ and are just a smidge behind LSU in points per game (53.4). Hurts is averaging 14.0 yards per attempt and has a passer efficiency rating of 231.3, numbers that not only lead the FBS, but are also on pace to obliterate the records set last year by Murray (11.6 yards per attempt) and Tagovailoa (199.4 passer efficiency rating). Sportsbooks now have Hurts roughly neck-and-neck with Tagovailoa in the Heisman race. If Hurts leads Oklahoma to victory in Saturday’s Red River Rivalry showdown with 11th-ranked Texas, I’d put him ahead.
And while Tagovailoa remains the heavy favorite to become the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, I wouldn’t count Hurts out. This may seem like madness; Hurts isn’t even widely projected to be a first-rounder. But at this point in 2017 Mayfield was considered too short to go in the first round, and at this point in 2018 Murray appeared baseball-bound. Plus, Hurts’s stock is rising quickly. In 2017, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said that Hurts would have to change positions if he ever wanted to become an NFL prospect. On Tuesday, Kiper called Hurts’s growth “astonishing” and said that he would likely be a second-round pick if he maintains this level of production. How long until the top pick is in the conversation? (“Tank for Tua” is a good tagline, but “Hurt for Hurts” is better.)
Even at Oklahoma, Hurts remains a walking contradiction. He is the most experienced player on the team—arguably in the entire sport, with years of starting experience and multiple trips to national title games—and yet he’s simultaneously the newcomer, the player trying to figure out Riley’s scheme on the fly. Sometimes he seems like the most individually talented player in college football, and yet many would argue that his gaudy stats are simply the product of a system that also transformed Murray and Mayfield into stars. This is Hurts’s 1,001st life, and it’s the most intriguing of them all.
I made the mistake of holding on to my iPhone when Hurts gave his press conference following Oklahoma’s 48-14 rout of UCLA on September 14. I’ve used this technique before and been OK, but Hurts speaks so softly that I later had to wedge my phone into my ear, speaker-end first, to effectively transcribe his quotes. He doesn’t raise his voice when discussing the way his career unfolded at Alabama, but he does speak as if the weight of his past hangs in every word.
Before the UCLA game, a fan heckled Hurts about losing the Alabama starting job to Tagovailoa. Tyler Palmateer of The Norman Transcript recorded that exchange, and asked Hurts about it afterward. Hurts said that he ignores hecklers, but did so by explaining that the moment referenced by the heckler was so dark that it’s basically prepared him for anything. “When you’ve experienced the things I’ve experienced, when you’ve been at the top and you’ve essentially been knocked down off the throne, some things don’t bother you,” Hurts said.
After Oklahoma’s 2019 season opener, a 49-31 win over Houston, Sooners receiver CeeDee Lamb said that Hurts plays with a chip on his shoulder. When asked about Lamb’s comment by CBS’s Dennis Dodd, Hurts issued a correction. “It’s a boulder,” Hurts said. He elaborated with a surprisingly somber addendum: “Everybody has their pain that they deal with.”
While Hurts is still bothered by Alabama coach Nick Saban’s decision to sub him out for Tagovailoa in that national championship game, it was unquestionably the right move. As a young player, Hurts struggled as a passer and quickly scrambled when he felt like he couldn’t complete a throw. Before being benched in that title game against Georgia, he went 3-for-8 through the air, a line that included three throwaways. On those three completions, Hurts’s targeted receivers were a combined 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage. I circled the three targeted receivers for you:
Tagovailoa came in and launched the ball deep, picking apart Georgia’s defense in the process. At the beginning of his college career, Hurts was willing to do that, too. Here’s his first Alabama touchdown pass, a bomb to ArDarius Stewart.
But Hurts’s inaccuracy became a problem. He threw eight interceptions over a seven-game stretch in October and November of his freshman year. In that season’s national championship game against Clemson, he hit one big pass, a 68-yard score to O.J. Howard, but finished just 13-for-31 for 131 yards. He completed checkdowns and missed virtually everything else. With a slew of incompletions sandwiched around one big play, Bama never recorded a drive of more than three minutes, allowing Clemson’s offense to run 99 plays and Deshaun Watson to engineer a comeback for the ages.
Hurts backtracked further into a conservative style of play as a sophomore, assuming the game-manager role held by many Bama quarterbacks before him. He threw 17 touchdowns and just one interception in 2017; of those 17 scores, only three went to targets 20 or more yards downfield.
The version of Hurts currently climbing up statistical leaderboards started to surface in 2018, when he got to work with quarterbacks coach Dan Enos. While Saban has seemingly been in charge of the Crimson Tide forever, his coordinator positions have functioned as rotating doors for coaches seeking a springboard to better gigs. In Hurts’s three seasons in Tuscaloosa, he was coached by five different offensive coordinators. Supposedly, Hurts stayed at Alabama last season despite being benched for Tagovailoa because he liked working with Enos, who was Alabama’s associate head coach and QBs coach in 2018. Enos says he taught Hurts to stop scrambling and trust his arm, and coaches credit Enos with turning Hurts’s backup season into a success.
Hurts’s development was visible during the 2018 SEC championship game against Georgia—the same team he’d been benched against in the national title game a year prior, in the very same building no less. Tagovailoa exited in the fourth quarter with a leg injury and Alabama trailing 28-21. Hurts took over and played hero, going 7-for-9 passing with six completions to targets more than 10 yards downfield. Hurts didn’t shy away from squeezing critical passes into tight windows.
The Tide won 35-28 after Hurts passed for a touchdown on his first drive and rushed for a touchdown on his second. Hurts was praised for having the determination to stick it out at Bama when so many other quarterbacks might have left. Hurts graduated after the season, allowing him to transfer this fall without having to sit out a year. And at Oklahoma, the version of Hurts that started to grow in 2018 has fully blossomed.
One wonders whether Lincoln Riley could make magic out of garbage, or whether he could steal a mannequin from Macy’s, strap a helmet and pads onto it, and teach that lump of human-shaped plastic to be a Heisman contender. After all, the year-after-year successes of Oklahoma’s transfer quarterbacks are unprecedented. And those quarterbacks are products of Riley’s system.
But Riley’s system is dependent on those quarterbacks having uncommon talent. He wanted Hurts because he’s Hurts. And each year, Riley changes his offensive strategy to accentuate the strengths of his QB. This SB Nation article breaks down how the Sooners ran more play-action with Murray than they did with Mayfield. There’s been a shift for Hurts, too, and he’s shifted his play to match.
The Hurts of 2019 no longer gets jittery. He spends most of his time chilling behind Oklahoma’s offensive line, one of the best in college football. He just hangs out, doing meal prep or browsing the newest selection of movies on Netflix, until the time is right to torch his competition. Take the play below. A younger version of Hurts would’ve bolted. This version of Hurts had faith that his receiver just needed more time to get open, and he did.
A younger version of Hurts had a passing chart that featured short passes, shorter passes, and a sprinkle of midrange looks. This version of Hurts has a passing chart red with the blood of the secondaries he’s demolished.
Jalen Hurts' passing grid so far for 2019. (The numbers in each box are his QBR. 100 is the best QBR possible. LOOK AT ALL THE 100S AND 99S.) pic.twitter.com/tXUDPatXUL— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 8, 2019
Hurts is accurate on midrange passes and has the arm strength to go deep. And while he doesn’t stick ICBMs into the chests of downfield receivers like Patrick Mahomes does, his deep balls suggest to his targets that they should settle under the passes floating their way.
Oh, and Hurts is still running—only now he’s more effective at it than ever. Oklahoma’s offense may be called Air Raid, but the Sooners have been the most efficient rushing team in the nation over the past few years. The reason is simple: When opponents are so fearful of the pass that they scurry out of the box like cockroaches when a light switch flips, there’s no one left to stop the run. Designed run plays are peaceful jaunts through undefended turf; scrambles often take place when defenders are 30 yards downfield. During his tenure at Alabama, Hurts averaged 5.1 yards per carry. At Oklahoma, that figure is up to 8.8. Now Hurts calmly cycles through his progressions and uses his passing ability to open up the run.
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky made an interesting observation about a Sooners play that he dubbed the “pass-run option.” If Oklahoma’s opponent defends this a certain way, it leaves a built-in scramble lane through an area of the field left unguarded. Hurts goes through his reads, and sees that the run is open.
How impressive was @jalenhurts last night for the @OU_football offense?!?!? Lincoln Riley greasing up some goodies for his new QB-some goodies! No longe that R-P-O—how about an P-R-O.. @soonergridiron @soonerfootball @gabeikard @getupespn pic.twitter.com/kXMIW3wBlq— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 2, 2019
Early in his career, Hurts’s quarterback runs were panicked, instinctive reactions to pressure. He didn’t trust his arm, but felt that he could fall back on his scrambling. Now his runs are measured choices, available because the threat of his arm has sent the defense sprinting elsewhere.
Oklahoma is running with Hurts this season more than it did with Murray last year, which is somewhat astonishing considering what Murray can do as a runner. Hurts’s carries account for 30.9 percent of Oklahoma’s 2019 run plays and 17.5 percent of its offensive total; Murray’s carries accounted for 26.5 percent of the team’s 2018 run plays and 15.1 percent of its total. Murray never ran for 150 yards in a game at Oklahoma; Hurts has already done it twice. (When I saw him play at UCLA, a slew of penalties allowed him to run for 100 yards … on the Sooners’ opening drive alone.)
I could see Hurts replicating the accomplishments of Mayfield and Murray. He’s outperforming them, and through five games he’s on pace to have the most efficient passing season of all time and one of the best quarterback running seasons of all time. But I don’t think Hurts’s primary concern is outperforming his Oklahoma predecessors. I can’t see into Hurts’s soul, but I’ve heard him talk about his past, and I believe he’s motivated by the pain he experienced at Alabama. He can stick it to Bama in three ways.
Tagovailoa was supposed to have the inside track to this year’s Heisman and the 2020 no. 1 NFL draft pick. Hurts can seize both. He can also top Alabama on the field. Mike Locksley, one of his former offensive coordinators, told USA Today’s George Schroeder before the season that Hurts “would like to see the Oklahoma-Alabama matchup happen” and suggested that the possibility of the Sooners meeting the Tide in the College Football Playoff “came into play when he made the decision to go there.” Both teams are undefeated, and if Oklahoma downs Texas, it’s tough to see who would keep it from getting into the four-team field. Oklahoma is third in the SP+ rankings and boasts its best defense in years.
The world knows about Hurts’s many pasts. Hurts knows about them, too, and they’ve guided him in pursuit of his ideal future.