TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He’s the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year. He set an Alabama football record by being part of 36 touchdowns and just missed the record for total yards in a season. And Jalen Hurts did so as a true freshman while going 13-1 as a starting quarterback.
Is he just getting started? Or have Crimson Tide fans seen the best that Hurts has to offer?
Former Alabama quarterbacks Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson believe it’s definitely the former.
“I think we can expect a lot from Year 2,” Wilson said.
Hurts was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Alabama since Vince Sutton in 1984. McElroy and Wilson become starters later, but each has a unique perspective.
Not only was Wilson a 3-year starter from 2006-08, but he was the established quarterback when Nick Saban became coach in 2007. He had the double whammy of learning the offense not once, but twice. Plus, he had 3 offensive coordinators.
“It’s tough,” Wilson said. “You have a million things going on, you’re trying to figure out who you are as a quarterback because you’ve never done it in college before. Working with [Saban] is different, and a different system.
“The learning, I think, will be easier for [Hurts] this year. He can go out there and really settle in.”
Like Wilson, McElroy came in under Mike Shula. He didn’t play much at first. But when he became the starter in 2009, McElroy found his learning curve continued.
“As a true freshman, the ball and everything else is flying around so fast that you’re not necessarily going to play on-time within the progressions. You’re not always going to make the correct read or decision,” said McElroy, now an ESPN analyst. “That’s to be expected of a young player.
“My first year as a starter I was a junior and the amount I improved from my junior year to my senior year was exponential. I know that my confidence level grew significantly as well.”
Consequently, it’s with a lot of conviction that McElroy says of Hurts: “If last year was a base line, you can expect a pretty big jump.”
Hurts in the driver’s seat
Last year was remarkable by anyone’s standards. Hurts threw for 2,780 yards with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He would have topped 1,000 rushing yards if sacks weren’t counted against the running game at the collegiate level, helping give him 3,734 yards of total offense — just shy of Blake Sims’ 3,837 (3,487 passing, 350 rushing).
Nevertheless, there’s room for improvement.
Hurts completed 62.8 percent of his passes along with a 139.1 passer rating that was 44th in the nation. His 185.3 passing yards per game was ninth in the SEC, and while his 248.9 yards per game of total offense led all SEC freshmen he was seventh overall even though Alabama played 15 games.
“Last year he did such a tremendous job of playing within himself, of understanding what his strengths and weaknesses were, and not trying to be someone he wasn’t,” McElroy said. “It was obviously good enough to get them within a couple of minutes of winning a national championship. It’s amazing how well he played in some of the biggest pressure-packed environments, and that’s a really testament to him.
“His intermediate accuracy is not where it needs to be and I certainly think he can improve some down-the-field throws, too. But that’s a matter of repetition as much as it is anything else.”
Ask any player about his development and he’ll tell you that an offseason can make a huge difference. There’s a chance to recover and process everything. Football can be like anything in school — one can become familiar with something initially but it’s difficult to know and understand anything until repeated opportunities.
Second season significance
McElroy describes the difference between his first two years at Alabama as “night and day,” and then there was another significant contrast between his first season as a starting quarterback and second.
“I remember as a junior I was just trying to stay above water,” he said. “I know my confidence would go up and down like a roller coaster. I didn’t always have an answer for something that the defense might throw at me.
“As a senior I was so much better.”
Even though Alabama lost 3 games his senior year, and played 1 game fewer, McElroy’s numbers back that up.
McElroy felt different during his second season as a starter. He had a better grasp of what to expect, what to do in certain situations and what he was capable of. He was simply a better quarterback.
Hurts’ teammates are saying similar things about him this spring.
“I feel like he’s better from last year already,” cornerback Anthony Averett said.
“It’s better,” wide receiver Cam Sims said about Hurts’ decision-making ability.
“He is passing the ball a lot better,” safety Hootie Jones said.
The talk after Alabama’s first scrimmage was about how the offense didn’t just attack downfield, but that it succeeded in throwing the ball all over the field.
Saban said at the beginning of spring that the immediate goal was to help Hurts improve and become “more of a complete player, mostly in the passing game.” Recently he too offered praise.
But even before that Hurts himself said he felt a difference.
“Slowing the game down, seeing things faster,” he said.
“When the game slows down, you get better as a passer. I probably ran a little bit more last year because I was young. It’s slower now, so, of course the passing game, we can only expect it to be better.”
If that sounds familiar, it should.
Go back to the last time a quarterback returned for his second season as the Crimson Tide’s starter.
It was 2012, and AJ McCarron said nearly the same thing.
When asked at what point things started clicking for him, McCarron said it was the Tennessee game, his eighth as a starter after both redshirting a season and then serving 1 as a backup.
“I felt like the defense was slowing down and I was starting to see everything,” he said. “I think that’s one thing I learned from Greg [McElroy]. He watched a ton of film and I kinda inherited that. It was a bunch, a bunch of film. I’m always trying to see what they’re going to do and learn what I have to do after I make my own mistakes.”
Hurts didn’t have that sort of mentor last year. He was an early enrollee, was thrown into the scout team for a few practices before the national championship and barely had a chance to meet then-starter Jake Coker.
By summer Hurts was squarely in a big-time competition to start.
“You try and develop a system of getting your body ready, of watching film and getting ready, he was trying to learn how to do that,” Wilson said. “Brodie [Croyle] was the starter three years in front of me, he had a pretty good system, so I kind of took what I liked from him, what I didn’t like, what worked and didn’t work, and made it my own. He had to sort of learn on the fly.”
There’s that whole thing about being the starting quarterback at Alabama, especially when it’s in the midst of a dynasty. That’s also a huge adjustment, and Hurts called the experience “humbling.”
This spring, he knew he was the starter. Hurts didn’t have to worry about competition or playing time. He spent the offseason focusing on the things he needed to improve, and he became familiar with his new offensive coordinator and teammates.
That comfort zone can translate into a lot on the field.
“I expect a much better player this year, frankly,” McElroy said.