TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was not what you call an auspicious debut, at least not on the first play.
There was 2:44 remaining in the first quarter of Alabama’s season opener against Southern California, and the Crimson Tide were down 3-0 when true freshman Jalen Hurts entered the game to take his first collegiate snap.
He didn’t really sell the end-around fake to wide receiver ArDarius Stewart, wasn’t decisive on whether to give the ball to running back Damien Harris and didn’t dive on the resulting fumble, giving USC a chance to recover — which linebacker Cameron Smith did.
“How do you respond?” Hurts later said about what was subsequently going through his head on the sideline.
He ended up completing 6 of 11 passes for 118 yards, and rushing for 32 more while scoring four touchdowns in the 52-6 season-opening rout at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
While a lot was made of Hurts’ poise, and deservedly so, while leading Alabama back to the College Football Playoff, that first fumble was the start of a statistical trend last season.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts fumbles the ball, and Cameron Smith recovers! USC takes over on the Alabama 48. pic.twitter.com/12Xb2uWceR
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) September 4, 2016
The SEC Offensive Player of the Year might have been able to shake off that first play, but his fumble issues persisted. He ended up with 11, and five lost.
His fumble against Kentucky, when he was set to pass only to lose his grip on the ball, was credited as a team fumble. Had it been attributed to Hurts, he would have finished tied for second for most fumbles lost last season along with six other players, including Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, one behind Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans.
All of the players with six or more fumbles were quarterbacks, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
But here’s one of those statistics that show why coaches are so hesitant to play a freshman quarterback: Hurts’ fumble numbers matched AJ McCarron’s over his entire Crimson Tide career, which included three years as a starter.
— Danny Parker (@TheDannyParker) October 15, 2016
Overall, Alabama was credited with 26 fumbles, but lost just 10. That’s the most fumbles during the Nick Saban era at Alabama, but just a little below average for fumbles lost.
|Total||181-89 (avg: 18.1-8.9)|
The fumbles lost were tied for 87th out of 128 teams in the nation. So it’s a statistical spike, but sort of an understandable one due to having an 18-year-old quarterback.
A real point of optimism for the Crimson Tide was despite not having any returning veterans at running back, the young group that stepped up and only lost two, the same number as Alabama’s wide receivers.
Alabama fumbles–lost, 2016
- Jalen Hurts 11-5
- Josh Jacobs 2-2
- Bo Scarbrough 3-0
- Team 2-1
- Damien Harris 2-0
- Robert Foster 1-1
- ArDarius Stewart 1-1
- Gehrig Dieter 1-0
- Trevon Diggs 1-0
- B.J. Emmons 1-0
- Calvin Ridley 1-0
Of course, not all fumbles are created equal.
For example, Alabama had three at Arkansas. On one, Harris got drilled with the defender putting his helmet right on the ball, and another wide receiver ArDarius Stewart had a 67-yard catch-and-run end with a turnover because he wasn’t carrying the ball correctly.
“What we talk about is there’s a technical way to carry the ball,” Saban said.
“Players have to have confidence that if they do things correctly, they minimize the chances of having bad things happen.”
However, it’s hard to blame Hurts for his fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Ole Miss, when he was blindsided following a missed block.
— Chris Renkel CBS 42 (@Chris_Renkel) September 17, 2016
Again, Alabama rallied, and Hurts ended up winning his first road SEC game, 48-43.
“I think that’s all part of his psychological disposition of not letting things affect him, being self-critical, knowing when you made a mistake, being able to focus on the next play, learning from the mistakes that he makes,” Saban said. “I think this is the right stuff that we talked about that players need to have to be able to improve. If you can’t be self-critical, or you’re defensive toward any kind of correction or criticism, it makes it very difficult for you to learn and grow.
“I think one of his greatest assets is that he’s like a sponge when it comes to those type of things,”
Overall, 10 Alabama players who have been coached by Saban have fumbled at least seven times, and most were quarterbacks.
|John Parker Wilson||2005-08*||11-4|
* Includes pre-Saban years
Incidentally, two standouts who never had a fumble despite touching the ball a combined 442 times during their illustrious careers were wide receivers Amari Cooper and Julio Jones.
During the Saban era running backs have had 63 fumbles, losing 37 (6.3-3.7 per season).
On average that’s roughly 35 percent of the Crimson Tide’s fumbles, and 42 percent of those lost, which are actually on the decline after rising over the preceding years.
That’s partly due to how well Mark Ingram Jr. and Trent Richardson held on to the ball when they played for the Crimson Tide. Harris and Bo Scarborough have already matched Ingram’s three career fumbles, although neither has lost any yet.
Ingram lost two (2008-10), and Richardson only one (2009-11), against Ole Miss as a freshman. That works out to Ingram having a fumble every 211 times he touched the ball (including carries, receptions, returns and one pass attempt), or a fumble lost every 317 touches. For Richardson, it was a fumble every 90.9 touches, but a fumble lost every 636.
Hurts was on the field for nearly 1,000 plays last season, including 382 passing attempts and 146 rushing. His last lost fumble was against Mississippi State on Nov. 12, and no one on the Crimson Tide had a fumble during the A-Day scrimmage to close spring practices.
“Everything’s gotten better,” Hurts said.