HOOVER, Ala. — Where’s the love for Jalen Hurts?
As SEC Media Days drew to a close Thursday afternoon, it did so without the reigning Offensive Player of the Year as a main talking points. Alabama not bringing him to the Wynfrey Hotel was obviously a factor, but Hurts was mentioned less than other quarterbacks who have yet to take a snap in the league.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was even asked about a potential quarterback controversy within the Crimson Tide, immediately crushing the question like “a hanging curveball.”
Imagine for a moment what the last four days would have been like had Hurts’ final touchdown in the national championship game against Clemson held up. There would be Heisman Trophy hype and non-stop hoopla about Alabama’s offensive potential. Saban wouldn’t have been anywhere near relaxed because of all the questions going to the other extreme. It would have rivaled Beano Cook glorifying Ron Powlus.
Instead, Hurts was largely overshadowed — again.
“All we talked about was defense,” ESPN analyst Marcus Spears said about the 2016 Crimson Tide.
“I think Jalen is a victim of Alabama being so good, so a lot of people talk about a lot of different areas on the team. But he did a lot of tremendous things.”
Tops among them may be scoring 36 touchdowns, 23 in the air and 13 on the ground, to set an Alabama single-season record. He needs six more to surpass Greg McElroy, Shaun Alexander and Jeff Rutledge to move into the top 10 on the school’s all-time career list, and 23 to reach No. 2 behind three-year starter AJ McCarron’s 80.
Due to that alone, Spears doesn’t hesitate to say that Hurts is the league’s best quarterback heading into the 2017 season. The preseason SEC media poll released Friday will likely agree.
Yet Spears was not ready to predict that Hurts will be the SEC’s best quarterback at the end of the season.
“I know people are [high on] Nick Fitzgerald. He’s good,” Spears said.
“We might look up at the end of the season and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss) might have blown the roof off with his numbers.”
Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy of the SEC Network listed Fitzgerald No. 1 in his SEC quarterback power rankings heading into fall camp followed by Hurts and Patterson.
The hype factor hasn’t been just limited to the quarterbacks for the schools from the Magnolia State. The position is expected to be a major strength in the league after being perceived as a weakness the past few seasons.
This time last year there were few returning starting quarterbacks, including Chad Kelly of Ole Miss, Joshua Dobbs of Tennessee, Kyle Shurmur of Vanderbilt and Brandon Harris, who lost the job at LSU.
This year it’s the opposite. There’s Mississppi State’s Fitzgerald, Georgia’s Jacob Eason, LSU’s Danny Etling, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Arkansas’ Austin Allen.
“The talent that we have in the SEC is as good as we’ve had in a long time,” Allen said. “I’d like to think of myself as right up there with them.”
Nick Saban: "Offensively, this is the first time we've had a returning starter (Jalen Hurts) at quarterback since 2013."
— Marq Burnett (@Marq_Burnett) July 12, 2017
Two other high-profile names have joined the mix. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is expected to win the job during Auburn’s training camp, and was recently rated by SI.com to be a better player than Hurts.
He was No. 74 on the website’s top 100 list, one spot ahead of his Crimson Tide counterpart. Patterson was considered the nation’s top quarterback prospect in 2016.
“There’s a lot of good quarterbacks,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “It’s one of those deals it almost seems to goes in cycles. It seems like a lot of guys are starting at quarterback, and then those guys grow and it becomes a position of strength.”
Hurts, of course, was an aberration last year as Alabama’s first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1984. He came within seconds of becoming the second in history in win a national championship (Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985).
Statistically, Hurts passed for 2,780 yards and would have run for 1,000 if sacks didn’t count against his rushing total while going 14-1 as a starter.
However, his 139.1 passer-efficiency rating was lacking and the downfield passing game all but vanished down the stretch.
That’s the part that many remain focused on even though Hurts doesn’t turn 19 until Aug. 7. You mention his name and the automatic response is he has to improve as a passer.
The thing is, Hurts already has.
He showed it during Alabama’s final scrimmage of the spring, A-Day, throwing for 313 yards while leading a come-from-behind victory against the Crimson Tide’s first-team defense.
Hurts also did so at the recent Manning Passing Academy, where he stood out against some of the nation’s best quarterbacks.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley took exception of Hurts’ critics at SEC Media Days, and he wasn’t the only one. Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson also praised Hurts.
“It’s not easy being a freshman and starting for a team like Alabama and playing in the SEC,” he said. “He did a great job last year.”
Hurts has also drawn high praise from Archie Manning and onlookers alike, including Senior Bowl director Phil Savage.
“The thing that impresses me every time I’m around him, and watch him throw, is that he can truly uncork the deep ball,” the former NFL general manger said. “That’s what makes him such a dangerous player, defenses have to defend the width of the field because of his legs, but also the depth of the field because of his ability to launch deep.”
Of course, the other factor is that Alabama fans in particular are always enamored with the player who might be the next great talent, like Julio Jones or Derrick Henry. True freshman Tua Tagovailoa certainly has that wow factor and passed for 300 yards against the second-team defense on A-Day. But he’s slated to be the backup this season.
Ask any Alabama player and he’ll make it clear that Hurts is the guy, which won’t change barring an injury. Hurts won over the team last year and doesn’t have to do it again.
“He’s really pushing,” senior center Bradley Bozeman said. “He’s taken a much bigger leadership role.”
Hurts can focus on making the transition from being a very good football player to a very good quarterback, something that new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been tasked with guiding.
In the broader scheme, Hurts is just getting started.
Kentucky linebacker Courtney Love called him the best player he faced last year and CBS put him on its poster to promote this season’s SEC broadcasts. But Hurts has yet to fully arrive in terms of college football status.
“He gets the respect, but there are some people out there who don’t respect him,” junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley said.