Dissecting Jalen Hurts

Being quarterback at Alabama garners a great deal of attention and more than your fair share of criticism. Which begs an important question about Jalen Hurts: How good is he?

Fill in the blank. Jalen Hurts is a ______________.

Great quarterback?

Game manager?

Good college quarterback but not an NFL quarterback?

Leader?

Backup?

Opinions on Jalen Hurts run the gamut. Except for one half of football, No. 2 has been the mainstay at quarterback for Alabama over the last two seasons. But now that half of football, coupled with the potential second coming of Kenny Stabler nipping at your heels, is threatening to disrupt Crimson Tide’s apple cart of harmony.

Few would argue against Nick Saban’s decision to replace Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa during halftime of the national championship game versus Georgia. Hurts not only had been slumping for some time, Alabama’s offense was dull and lifeless. A common argument among critics of Hurts’ 2017 performance was that he performed poorly in the last three games of the season; the reality is that Hurts’ decline goes back to December 2016.

Now, like it or not, there’s a quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa, and while Saban would prefer the media not to inflate the competition, it continues to be the storyline in fall camp. The looming question in Alabama this August is, “Will the seasoned junior regroup after losing his position in the national championship against Georgia, or is it ‘Tua Time’—permanently?”

The Alabama quarterbacks in fall practice. Photo by Robert Sutton | Courtesy University of Alabama Athletics

Although Tua has never started a game, he seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the starting role. Hurts, who for the last two seasons has been continuously lauded for his poise, seems more panicked than seven months ago, when he gave his humble, back-slapping support of the one who passed him over. In a five-minute, un-Hurtslike rant, he raised eyebrows as he addressed the media on the first day of fall camp and sounded more like a distressed victim than the likely starter.

Now as the summer progresses, the narrative seems to be leaning toward, not who will be the starting quarterback, but rather whether or not the Jalen Hurts era at Alabama is about to come to an unhappy end. For if Hurts loses his starting job, the prospect of standing on the sideline beside the fifth-string holder for two years isn’t exactly the way he envisioned ending his career.

No matter what happens, Hurts deserves a great deal of credit for what he has done. From the moment he debuted, he has led Alabama with grace and, yes, poise. First, Hurts essentially saved 2016 for Alabama. Against Southern Cal in the 2016 opener, starter Blake Barnett—who looked like Ned and the First Reader in producing collectively zero points—was yanked in the first quarter and replaced by the true freshman from Channelview, Texas, who spurred a 52-point onslaught. After the game, Saban looked like a genius in using Barnett as a decoy, and by Week 3 in Oxford, Hurts had solidified the starting role. (The overwhelmed Barnett said “peace out” and quickly bounced from T-town, and later, Hurts’ other backup, Cooper Bateman, transferred to Utah to be a wide receiver). Let’s face it, had Hurts not enjoyed a banner year, or if Alabama had to go to war with Barnett or Bateman, there is no way the Tide make it to the national championship game versus Clemson.

That year, Hurts threw for 2,780 yards, rushed for 954 more, and won the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year. And he darn near won the whole shootin’ match. Against Clemson in the national title game, his 30-yard run with 2:07 to go put the Tide up 31-28, and just as though it appeared as though Alabama was going to win in a squeaker, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson led a last-minute drive that ended with a pick play to Hunter Renfroe to seal the win. Though Hurts did not perform spectacularly during the game—the offense sputtering for long stretches at a time—fans seemed to give him a pass. After all, he was a freshman who put the Tide in a position to win; the defense, too gassed, just couldn’t stiffen up one last time.

The Mississippi State game was far and away Hurts’ best game of the 2016 post-October season. Against the Bulldogs, Hurts was 28 of 37 for 347 yards and four touchdowns.

After MSU, however, Hurts decelerated. In the last three games of the 2016 season, he passed for 138, 57, and 131 yards against Florida, Washington, and Clemson, respectively. In those three games, Hurts’ quarterback rating was 27.8, 14.2, and 24.2—not exactly numbers that would make John Elway blush with envy.

Hurts in spring practice. Photo by Robert Sutton | Courtesy the University of Alabama Athletics

In the offseason, the general consensus among Alabama faithful was “we’ll be fine at quarterback.” Hurts will mature, someone will work with him on his passing game, and he’ll improve, no doubt.

But as a portent for things to come, Hurts’ second season began inauspiciously against Florida State under bright lights in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game in Mercedes Stadium in Atlanta. Facing a stout ‘Noles defense, coupled with having to navigate the first game with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Hurts threw for a meager 96 yards and ran for another 55 as Alabama won a 24-7 snoozer. 

The season charged on and Alabama put wins in its pocket like lost dimes. Perhaps because Alabama was easily marching through the SEC yet again, Hurts’ lower production numbers in September and October were buried beneath all the winning. After all, ‘Bama didn’t need Hurts to put up spectacular stats to beat Arkansas and an Ole Miss team still limping from the exodus of Hugh Freeze. A narrative circulating throughout message boards was that defenses had sort of “figured Hurts out” and with Damien Harris on his way to another 1,000-yard year and a corps of young receivers to distribute the ball to, not to mention the ever-present phenom of Calvin Ridley, Hurts didn’t have to carry as much of the offensive load.

While no one was really noticing, Hurts rolled off a string of five consecutive weeks of under 200 yards passing beginning on Oct. 7 versus Texas A&M. And except for Mississippi State, Hurts’ November disappearing act held an encore performance in 2017. Yet Alabama—and Hurts—seemed to somehow continue winning.

Hurts had 3 interceptions in a recent scrimmage. Photo by Kent Gidley | Photo courtesy University of Alabama Athletics.

 

Now with a sample size of two seasons in the books, how does one judge Jalen Hurts as a quarterback, both now and in the future? ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith recently lambasted Hurts—”Let me be very, very clear. Jalen Hurts is not impressive…” and went on to say,  “I’ve got serious questions about whether [Hurts] can throw the football”—while others have come to Hurts’ defense. Kirk Herbstreit suggested that a general move to offensive conservatism (and thus Hurts’ inability to get Ridley more touches) has negatively affected Ridley’s draft stock.

Many an armchair quarterback has not waited on the riveting analysis of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay to determine that Hurts is not an NFL quarterback. Yet over his short, two-year career, Hurts has demonstrated a capacity for brilliance and the ability to march into tough environments and emerge with a win. Last year, he led a courageous fourth-quarter drive to beat Mississippi State on a typical eerie fall night in Starkville. In 2016, he brazenly led his team back from a 24-3 deficit in Oxford to secure a 48-43 win against Ole Miss. He was responsible for 68 percent of the Tide offense (221 out of a total of 323 yards) in a 10-0 win in Baton Rouge in 2016.

Athletically, he is extremely gifted. He is a great runner, an elusive runner who can jolt by you. He is deceptively fast around the edge and is accurate in short-yardage passing situations. He has a cannon for an arm, but has not quite figured out how to harness it. Besides Joe Namath, he is perhaps the most athletically talented quarterback in the history of Alabama football.

Although it’s difficult to argue against Hurts’ record, the volatile economy of his numbers reveals that he is prone to stretches of inconsistency, both in-game and from game-to-game. As Hurts struggles, Alabama becomes feast or famine, with long stretches of three-and-outs plaguing the Tide offense as well as his ever-maddening tendency to roll right out of the pocket and chuck it out of bounds. And when the offense stalls, it stalls completely. If it were not for a menacing defense and JK Scott’s ability to flip the field on a punt, Alabama would certainly have lost more games in 2017.

The one game Alabama did lose, Auburn, was defined by an inability to score more so than it was to move the ball, as the 14-point output was Alabama’s lowest point total of the year and among the lowest in the Saban era.

In all, Hurts has thrown for 200 yards in consecutive games only once, versus Kentucky in 2016 and the following week against Arkansas. He has thrown for over 300 yards only once—in the 51-3 blowout against MSU in 2016.

One cannot understate the last two-and-a-half games of the 2017 season—from the Auburn debacle to halftime of the Georgia game—when his performance was something close to pathetic. Across those six quarters, Alabama’s offense scored 14, 17, and 0 points—unacceptable numbers by any measure, especially with the kind of talent Alabama fielded last season.

With some exceptions, Hurts’ production normally tails off in conjunction with the meat of the Western Division schedule and the postseason. Before November, Hurts is averaging 175.06 yards passing per game. From November onward, Hurts is averaging 157.35 passing yards per game, a reduction of almost 17 yards per game.

In 2016, Hurts faced only three teams (LSU, Florida, Clemson) ranked in the Top 25 of total defense. In those three games, Hurts was 34-68 passing (.500) with two touchdowns and an interception. In 2017, Hurts faced six teams in the Top 25 in total defense: Florida State, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, and Clemson. Across these six games, his passing production was modest—62-114 (.543)—and he averaged 51 rushing yards per game.

With the aforementioned 2016 game combined with the 2017 come-from-behind performance in a prickly environment in Starkville where he threw for 242 yards on 10 of 18 passing, it’s easy to deduce that Hurts has produced his best numbers against Mississippi State. But Hurts has been more inconsistent against Auburn. In 2016, he performed admirably, setting an Iron Bowl record for completion percentage of 75 percent. Last year was the converse, as Hurts connected on only 12 of 22 attempts and could not inspire more than two touchdowns in four quarters.

What about the playoffs? The CFB semifinals in 2016 and 2017 were near mirror images for Hurts and Alabama’s offense. Against Washington in 2016, Hurts was 7 of 14 for 57 yards and no touchdowns. Against Clemson in the 2017 semifinals, Hurts was 16 of 24 for 120 yards and one TD. In both games, the Alabama offense mustered a total of 17 points, and the final score was nearly identical—24-7 against Washington and 24-6 against Clemson.

Hurts’ overall production in 2017 was down 21 percent from 2016. During his freshman season, Hurts was tied for 13th in the SEC in scoring with 78 total points, while last year, he was tied for 31st with 48 total points. In 2016, Hurts was fourth in the SEC in passing with 2,780 yards, while in 2017, he was ninth in the SEC in passing yards at 2,081 and 11th in rushing yards with 855 (trailing only MSU’s Nick Fitzgerald with 984). Granted, Hurts had far less passing attempts (254) under Daboll in 2017 than in a Lane Kiffin-orchestrated offense, where Hurts threw the ball 382 times, but the point is made: numbers-wise Hurts wasn’t as good in his sophomore season as he was his freshman season.

Does Saban know who the quarterback is going to be? Here’s another look from fall practice. Photo by Kent Gidley | Courtesy University of Alabama Athletics

Yet for his career, Hurts has 40 passing touchdowns, which already places him fourth on the all-time list at Alabama behind A.J. McCarron (77), John Parker Wilson (47), and Brodie Croyle (41). With 6,670 yards to his credit, Hurts is third in total offense in the history of Alabama football. His 61 career touchdowns places him second behind McCarron’s 80. Hurts holds the Alabama record for number of touchdowns in a season, 36, and his five touchdowns against Mississippi State is tied for the most in a game in team history.

Still the question lingers, “Is Hurts good or is he good because he’s had the luxury of being Alabama’s quarterback?”

Although Hurts is 26-2 as the starting quarterback at Alabama, when the Crimson Tide trots out onto the field against Louisville in the Camping World Kickoff Game in Orlando on Sept. 1, there’s a good chance his position on the depth chart will match the number stitched on his jersey.

Such is life in an environment more cutthroat than a Siberian winter.

With five recent championships under their belt, Alabama fans remain greedy, and the talk in 2018 includes another title. The center of that discussion involves the quarterback battle. Hurts or Tagovailoa?

At Alabama, whether or not the quarterback is an NFL prospect matters less than whether the he can win the national championship.

As good as Hurts may have been, he hasn’t proved he can do either. H&A

 

 

 

 

 

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