It was the moment everyone — those in the stadium, fans watching at home and, most importantly, the guys in the huddle and on the team — knew the stage wasn’t too big for the 18-year-old true freshman from Channelview, Texas, a suburb outside of Houston.
University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts had just been blindsided by Ole Miss linebacker Marquis Haynes, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound hybrid linebacker/defensive end, who came in untouched off the right edge of UA’s offensive line. Haynes lowered his helmet just underneath Hurts’ chin and, with a crushing blow, separated Hurts from the ball, which Ole Miss picked up and ran for a touchdown to extend its lead to 24-3.
Hurts calmly got up and casually jogged to the sideline. He didn’t lie on the ground and sulk, although no one would’ve blamed him, as hard as he had been hit. He didn’t yell at his offensive line, which messed up the protection. He didn’t petition the referee for a targeting call, although certainly one could have been made.
No, instead Hurts went to the sideline and gathered himself and his teammates for a couple of minutes, and then went out and led one of the most important drives of the season.
He helped the Crimson Tide get those seven points back in three plays. He found Calvin Ridley for a 22-yard gain, followed that up with a 22-yard run, and Ridley punctuated the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run.
In those plays, Hurts won the team over — though, truth be told, he’d likely done that long before that afternoon in Oxford, Miss.
“He showed us all something after he got rocked,” sophomore running back Damien Harris said.
That poise has come to define Hurts’ season, more so than his gifted running ability or his work-in-progress passing game. His stoicism has become the stuff of internet memes, but it’s a rare characteristic for any competitor, let alone a true freshman.
It has also rubbed off on the team — although, let’s face it, the team has trailed in the second half just twice all season.
“It's a mindset,” Hurts said after the SEC Championship Game last weekend in Atlanta in his first media availability since suiting up for Alabama. “I grew up as a coach's kid, so I was around the game often. So it was kind of natural for me to be stoic, calm, because that's who I am.
“I think it's something I inherited just growing up, being a coach's kid. My brother was a little emotional. He would show emotions sometimes, and I learned from that. I think that's why I am who I am now.”
What he is now is the best offensive player in the SEC. That’s what the league coaches labeled him when they voted him the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
He’s accounted for 3,433 total yards and 34 touchdowns.
Hurts continues to grow in the offense, especially his running ability. His rushing attempts and yards have increased each month of the season (45 carries for 251 yards in September, 50 for 270 in October and 59 for 319 in November).
Somewhat surprising is that Hurts has played some of his best games on the road, including at Ole Miss (146 yards rushing), at Tennessee (132 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns), and at LSU (114 yards rushing and one rushing score).
In a way, though, his success on the ground in road games shouldn’t be a surprise given how road environments can be notoriously tough for inexperienced passers. In those three tough SEC road games, Hurts averaged less than 150 yards (145.7) passing.
The passing game remains inconsistent, but that’s not uncommon for a true freshman quarterback. He’s had the most success on first down — again, not uncommon for most quarterbacks.
On first downs this season he has completed 100 of 149 attempts for 1,162 yards and six touchdowns against one interception. The completions, attempts and yards passing drop with each passing down.
On second downs he’s 69 of 103 for 836 yards for nine touchdowns and four interceptions. On third downs, he’s 47 of 80 for 543 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions.
He knows for this offense to reach its potential, he needs to play with more consistency. But he also doesn’t overly fret the mistakes.
“You’re going to have fumbles, you’re going to have interceptions, you’re going to have incompletions, missed balls," he said.
“It becomes, ‘Next play. How do I respond?’ As a player, I just try not to let stuff get to me. It just comes with the story for me. Just next play, next play. Bad plays occur all the time. A bad play to me may not be a bad play to y'all. It always occurs, and you've just got to handle it.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.