THIBODAUX — Rarely does a college football player occupy the space that Jalen Hurts does — considered to be one of the best offensive players within his own conference but facing speculation that he may not be the best option at quarterback for his own team.
But you wouldn’t know that by the way Hurts talks about his current position. Even at 18 years old — he’ll turn 19 in August — Alabama’s sophomore signal caller has become known for his mature approach to the game and the spotlight. An admitted enjoyer of road games, words like “composed” and “stoic” get thrown often around when Hurts’ name is mentioned
“What happened last year for me, I just went into it with the mentality of getting better,” he said of winning the starting job last season. “I wasn’t competing against nobody but myself, and I wanted to be the best I could be. I feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to my abilities, and I just tried to be the best I could be. I ended up getting an opportunity to play as a freshman.”
He was no different when fielding questions from reporters at the Manning Passing Academy last month, answering some of the same things he’s been asked since spring practice began. From his thoughts on the last-second loss to Clemson in the national title to adjusting to a third offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll), Hurts’ responses are measured but confident.
Even with a five-star freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, nipping at his heels through spring practice, the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year takes it in stride. He's projected to be the starter when the Crimson Tide open the season with Florida State in Atlanta, but he won’t take it for granted.
After all, he was the young gun who usurped veterans to become the first true freshman starting quarterback at Alabama in more than three decades.
“At Alabama, nothing is guaranteed,” Hurts said. “We have really good competition that comes in every year and pushes us and that’s what it’s for. All the quarterbacks at our school, we’re doing a great job of competing and making each other better. And that’s that.”
If any debate still exists about who should take Alabama’s first snaps this season, it stems from Hurts’ shortcomings as a passer.
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin — who assumed duties as Florida Atlantic’s new coach after a semifinal win against Washington in the College Football Playoff — geared the Tide’s offense around a physical rushing attack led by Hurts. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound quarterback totaled 954 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 191 carries, including a 21-yard scoring scamper in a 10-0 win at LSU in November.
“It was just something that happened naturally,” Hurts said of the fourth-quarter touchdown in Baton Rouge. “Trying to roll out, throw it to the right. It wasn’t open. Stuck my foot up and made a play. Got into the end zone.”
But he was rarely asked to stretch the field with his arm, only throwing for more than 200 yards five times in 14 games. Hurts, though, was relatively efficient for much of the season, completing over 60 percent of his passes in 10 of his first 12 games.
Though Alabama’s running game did more than enough to topple Florida in the SEC title game and the Huskies in the CFP semifinal, Hurts' completion percentage dipped below 60 percent in both games. With Steve Sarkisian, now the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, running the offense in the national title game, Hurts’ accuracy issues were exposed.
Despite Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run that would give the Tide the lead late in the fourth quarter against Clemson, he connected on only 13 of 31 throws (a season-low 41.9 percent) with one touchdown in a 35-31 loss.
It wasn’t lost on Hurts that the passing game would be a point of emphasis in the offseason, especially his footwork and shoulder level, he said.
“Your feet kind of dictate a lot of things,” Hurts said. “With good feet, you put yourself in a position to make all the throws.”
Hurts will attempt to make those improvements to his game as the Crimson Tide implement an offense that’s influenced by the Patriots, a team Daboll spent three season with as an assistant.
“A lot of that stuff is similar what the Patriots do up there (with) Tom Brady,” Hurts said. “We’ll mix our systems and go from there.”