TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban may want to send a thank you note to the critics, doubters and everyone who ignored the times he said there’s no quarterback controversy, that Jalen Hurts is Alabama’s starter.
It’s now going to pay off, and the difference was on display Thursday during the Crimson Tide’s first day of training camp.
“I think he has a chip on his shoulder coming into this season,” Alabama junior guard Ross Pierschbacher said. “As a player, we like to see that he’s always wanting to improve, and even though he’s had this much success that he’s not satisfied.”
If you’re wondering how the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year could have a grudge, just consider the six months of widespread questioning and naysaying since the 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship.
There have been endless reminders of how his numbers dropped down the stretch and his 139.12 passer efficiency rating was 44th in the nation. Preseason magazines are analyzing how cautious the coaches were with his development in the passing game and how he too often relied on his legs instead of staying in the pocket.
— SEC Country Alabama (@SECCountryBama) July 13, 2017
Plus, Alabama added a prize recruit that fans became enamored with, and Saban has been asked about Tua Tagovailoa nearly as often as Hurts.
How could he not have a chip on his shoulder?
Although Hurts has given up social media — “No Twitter, no Instagram since the end of school. I’m locked in” — there’s no way he hasn’t heard the second-guessing and routine chides like “his downfield passing has to improve.”
It does, but it’s not as if Hurts has hit a ceiling in his development. His arm strength isn’t an issue. Indications are he’s had a good offseason and he’s only 18, with a birthday looming Monday.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” he said.
Also kind of funny that there has been discussion of a “QB controversy” at Alabama and Jalen Hurts was voted first-team All-SEC.
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) July 14, 2017
Moreover, Alabama fans are known for being impatient about who’s going to be next, the guy they haven’t seen but believe could be great.
Last year, it was Hurts. He went from being the buzz of the offseason to becoming Saban’s first true freshman quarterback to win over the team and start. The result was 2,780 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, 954 rushing yards and 13 more scores while helping Alabama win 14 games and its third consecutive SEC title.
Only Hurts isn’t looking for solely a repeat performance.
“I’d say it’s easy to be motivated,” Hurts said. “There’s always that motivating factor just sitting there. But it’s in the rear view, and the thing about a rear-view mirror is you can see it, you can see what’s behind you.
“So we’re not looking back to see what’s behind us, but it motivates us. And at the end of the day we’ve just got to go to practice and have a reason why — a purpose. Practice with a purpose.”
The statement was a reminder that for the first time since 2013 the Crimson Tide have a returning starter at quarterback, and what a significant difference it can make. There had been three straight years of, “Who’s going to be the quarterback?” questions, for which an answer didn’t develop until a couple of games into the regular season.
Once it did, only then could the offense start to gel.
This team won’t have that problem, plus Hurts has continued to work hard on numerous aspects of his game, which Saban reiterated. “I think he’s made tremendous strides in the spring,” the coach said. “I think he’s really improved as a passer.”
The only uncertainty is how new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will change the focus to be more in the pro-set style Saban prefers. Otherwise, everyone should be on the same page.
Unlike this time a year ago, with four guys competing to win the starting job, there was a confident quarterback leading both his position group and offense during the first official practice of the fall.
“Some of that comes naturally, some of that just comes from me being who I am,” Hurts said. “But people lead because they let you lead. Just because I walk in and say I want to do this don’t mean I’m going to do it. It happens over time, respect and what you do on the field. My peers respect me and we just want to improve every day.”
Hurts gave an additional inkling of what makes him tick when asked about how he went about putting in extra time with the wide receivers during the offseason. He said he did so every chance he could, regardless of who might be around.
“Alabama is big on competition, and if you’re good you’re going to play,” Hurts said. “I’m not nitpicky who I throw with. If you’re willing to get some work in, we can get some work in. It’ll only make the entire team better. Walk-on or not, starter or not, whatever. If you’re trying to get better, I’m 100 percent with that.”
That’s the talk of a leader. Of someone who has taken ownership of his position and unit. Of someone who has something to prove.
“He’s taken this as his team,” Pierschbacher said. “I think as a quarterback he should. The offense really respects that. We’ve got a lot of leaders on offense, but Jalen is going to run the show. He’s the quarterback.”