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Sooner than later: Oklahoma hands the ball to Hurts with another Heisman in mind

Jalen Hurts

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

After losing his job as Alabama’s starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts had a simple choice to make.

He could have sulked, dragging his teammates down with a defeatist, angry attitude. Or he could have opted for solid citizenry, content to do whatever Alabama coach Nick Saban asked of him in support of his successor, Tua Tagovailoa.

Hurts chose the good-guy route, earning the respect of his teammates and their coaches. And he prepared himself well enough to come off the bench in last season’s SEC Championship game to lead the Crimson Tide to a comeback victory over Georgia. Hurts completed 7-of-9 for 82 yards and a game-tying touchdown with 7:08 left. He then ran 15 yards for the game-winning touchdown with just over a minute to play.

But after the season, knowing Tagovailoa was entrenched, Hurts decided he wanted to spend his graduate season at a place where he could have a serious chance to start.

And he chose Oklahoma, the incubator that has spawned the last two Heisman Trophy winners – QBs Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

On Monday, Sooners coach Lincoln Riley ended a summer of debate by announcing Hurts would be his starting QB when they open the season Sept. 1 at home against Houston.

Hurts outlasted redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai and true freshman Spencer Rattler, two of then nation’s top QB prospects. Until Monday, Riley had given no indication that Hurts had. Now we know the ball will be in his hands.

During his three seasons at Alabama, Hurts was 26-2 as its starter. He collected 23 rushing touchdowns, the most ever for a Crimson Tide QB. He had a hand in 71 TDs, second in program history with a cumulative 7,602 yards of offense and 48 TD passes.

It’s no wonder Riley would turn to him to re-ignite Oklahoma’s highlight reel offense. Hurts can run as well as he can throw, which means he’s a clone of Mayfield and Murray (consecutive No. 1 overall NFL Draft picks) and perfectly suited for a program that improvises as much as its plans.

Remember, Hurts was the SEC’s offensive player of the year in 2016 and his ride would have been complete had Saban not benched him at halftime of the 2018 national championship game for Tagovailoa because his arm had been erratic.

With their core of fleet receivers, it’s going to be imperative for Hurts to get the ball to them. It’s what makes the Sooners sizzle. And he’s got some big shoes to fill. In 2017, Mayfield completed 70.5 percent for 4,627 yards and 43 TDs. Last season, Murray completed 69 percent for 4,361 yards and 42 TDs.

In Hurts’ two seasons as Alabama’s starter, he completed 61.9 percent with 40 TDs. What’s more interesting is, when he backed up Tagovailoa in 2018, Hurts completed 72.8 percent for eight TDs in his 13 appearances.

“Passing, at times, is hard to evaluate,” Riley told the Oklahoma media last week. “I mean, there’s a lot that goes into being an accurate passer, or effective passer, at this level. You know, everybody thinks it’s just being able to throw the ball where you want to. … There’s, you know, understanding protections, understanding footwork, understanding route concepts, being able to make decisions fast. Then obviously, at that point, being able to throw it the way you need to. So for him, it’s been more mental.

“His arm is very, very capable, both from a strength and an accuracy standpoint. That’s not an issue with him. It’s just been learning our stuff. And certainly in that regard, there’s no question he’s made a big jump.”

What’s likely to distinguish Hurts from his freshman competition is his experience and leadership. The guy has soared on big stages – six College Football Playoff games – and his knows how to command a huddle.

“There were a number of variables that go into my development,” said Hurts in March. “I think that all of those experiences, I’ll say, helped me for the better. I guess experiencing that success early, then kind of hit a little adversity … that made me better. I was able to see things differently, have a different perspective on things, and I think that’s kind of led up to me being the person I am standing here before you today.”

Jalen Hurts

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

We’ll see whether Riley decides to amend his offensive philosophy to suit Hurts. He might not need to do. The idea of the QB running was big last season with Murray, who gained more than 1,000 yards. Hurts rushed for 1,976 yards and 23 touchdowns at Alabama.

The media has not seen or heard much from Hurts since he came to Oklahoma. He’s had only two group sessions with reporters. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking. But in Oklahoma’s spring game, he was 11-of-14 for 174 yards and a touchdown. So we know he’s comfortable in his new home.

“The experience, intangibles, maturity and poise are really, really good,” Riley told ESPN on Monday. “You know what you’re getting from Jalen with those things. The goal with us has been how quickly can we get him comfortable with this system, and he’s getting closer every day.”

Riley said in the interview his impression from watching Hurts on tape last season was that he could have benefitted from being set loose more often.

“I saw a guy, I thought, who needed to be freed up a little bit, in my opinion,” said Riley. “Our goal with him has been freeing him up and letting him play a little more open and free. I saw the makings of that last year and thought he did a lot of really good things. At times, they moved it just as well or even better when he was in there, and obviously, Tua was absolutely phenomenal last year. But I thought Jalen was really, really good, too, and I think he’s better right now than he was last year.”

During a recent interview with the Oklahoma media, the Sooners star receiver, CeeDee Lamb, said he was excited about the chance to play with Hurts.

“Jalen is just a winner, man. He’s a baller,” said Lamb, who caught 11 TD passes in 2018. “He wants to go out there and get the job done and wants to do it the right way. If he feels something is wrong, he’s going to go back over it and over it. That’s one thing you want in a quarterback, and he’s a specimen. He’s as big as a linebacker and can throw like anybody. With Coach Riley and him in the same room, along with some others, we can do something very special.”