There was no better teammate, no player more determined to do the unselfish thing in the face of extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances this season than Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.
Those familiar with his timeline, prior to the second half of the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship game, might have concluded Hurts was destined to join Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Richard Todd and A.J. McCarron among the truly great Crimson Tide quarterbacks.
He was the SEC’s offensive player of the year as a freshman. He was 26-2 with two national championship games in two seasons as the Tide’s starter. He threw for 4,861 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and rushed for 1,809 yards and 21 touchdowns. He played with poise, elusiveness and efficiency. He was a star.
And then came along sophomore Tua Tagovailoa, who replaced a struggling Hurts in the second half of the national title game against Georgia, led the Tide to an improbable comeback win in overtime, and then beat Hurts out for the starting job in this season.
At that point, it would have been understandable if Hurts decided to prioritize his future by transferring. He wouldn’t have been the first and certainly wouldn’t have been the last to seek an open door after one had been slammed in his face.
Troy Aikman, Jeff George, Jeff Hostetler, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Baker Mayfield did it. Georgia’s Justin Fields went to Ohio State and Clemson’s Kelly Bryant signed with Missouri this season after their paths were blocked by Jeff Fromm and Trevor Lawrence.
But Hurts committed to Alabama coach Nick Saban and decided to stay and support Tagovailoa’s efforts to win another national championship.
“How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be,” said Saban. “And for a guy that’s a great competitor, that takes a lot. It’s not easy to do.”
Then on Wednesday multiple sites reported Hurts had decided it might finally be time to move on. Who could blame him? Tagovailoa is going nowhere. He was the Heisman Trophy runner-up this season. So, Hurts entered his name and information into the NCAA transfer portal, a sports holding pen for athletes interested in seeking other opportunity.
Now a rising junior, with one year of eligibility remaining, he can immediately play for another program because he graduated in December. The move to the portal, despite being accepted into a sports management graduate program at the university, was a necessary first step in announcing his availability. Schools may now contact him without repercussion. But it is not binding. He could change his mind as easily as he made it.
But you can bet there will be plenty of programs looking for the infusion he can bring.
Even though he didn’t start, Hurts saw significant playing time, mostly because Alabama’s games were routs and Tagovailoa rarely played in the fourth quarter. He threw for 765 yards and eight TDs, rushed for 167 yards and two TDs. The only two games he missed were because of a high ankle sprain.
And he played the title role in Alabama’s win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4. After Tagovailoa had to leave with an ankle injury that would require surgery, he repaid the favor by engineering his own comeback victory by throwing the game-tying TD pass and running for the winning score in a 35-28 victory.
“I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” said Saban. “It’s unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won. …and then all of a sudden, he’s not the quarterback.”
Before the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, the CFP semifinal, there was conjecture that Hurts would eventually transfer. At the time, he denied it, saying he’d spoken to no one about it.
“I’ve been counted out,” said Hurts. “I was supposed to do this, I was supposed to do that. Even last year after the [championship] game, I was supposed to be gone. This year, I was supposed to redshirt and do all those things. But I’m here. I’m here for this team, and that’s what is most important to me.”
Along with the conjecture about his impending departure have come possibilities of where he might land – Maryland, Florida State, TCU, Miami and even, ironically, Oklahoma, which is moving on from its second straight Heisman winner, Kyler Murray.
A move to Maryland seems to make sense since Mike Locksley, one of Saban’s former offensive coordinators, is now the head coach. Funny thing: Hurts’ father famously told Bleacher Report that he might someday become the most sought-after free agent in college football history. Yes, that sounds like it very well could be.
While Alabama would have loved the luxury of another season with Tagovailoa and Hurts, it will also move ahead. Mac Jones, a redshirt sophomore, will take the understudy role with two notable freshmen behind him – Tagovailoa’s brother, Taulia, and Bear Bryant’s grandson, Paul Tyson.
Alabama will forever bask in the memories Hurts made. Now it’s time for him to make some new ones.