How Jalen Hurts became a key to Alabama's success
Alabama came into the 2016 season as the No. 1 team in the nation, and expected by many to win the SEC and eventually repeat as national champions. The big question for them coming into the season however, was who would start at quarterback, and then whether or not true freshman Jalen Hurts could handle the responsibility of leading a team with such lofty expectations after he won the job. Seven weeks into the 2016 season though, he is handling the responsibility just fine — and then some.
An excellent game manager
The term game manager is often viewed as a negative, but in this case it is very much meant as a positive. When you watch Hurts play, you could be easily forgiven for confusing him with a fifth-year senior rather than a true freshman. The Alabama offensive line has done a solid job protecting him, with Hurts under pressure on 28.6 percent of his dropbacks, 39th-most among the 84 quarterbacks with at least 165 dropbacks so far this season. When pressure has got to him though, he hasn’t made a lot of mistakes.
PFF senior analyst Steve Palazzolo often talks about turnover-worthy plays, which are exactly as they sound, plays where the quarterback either did, or should have, committed a turnover. Hurts has just six turnover-worthy plays so far this season, limiting mistakes on a team where often that is going to be enough. Alabama has so much talent across the board, and in particular on defense, that as long as Hurts doesn’t make too many mistakes on offense, it’s going to be enough for them to be in position to win every game. Essentially, Hurts is committing just one play per game where he is risking a turnover, and while that alone is huge for Alabama, Hurts has grown into so much more than that.
Finding big plays downfield
As much as he has done a great job protecting the football, Hurts had made a lot of big plays with his arm through the first half of this season. On throws travelling 20 yards or further downfield, Hurts has gone 14-for-40, and with two of those incompletions coming as a result of dropped passes. He has an adjusted accuracy percentage of 40.0 percent, ranking 18th among all quarterbacks, and the best among freshman signal callers. He has also gone 16-for-29 on throws between 10 and 19 yards downfield, so he’s finding big plays when necessary.
Perhaps more importantly, his ability to find big plays has improved over the past three weeks. In the wins over Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee, Hurts has completed eight of the 18 passes of 20 yards or further downfield he has attempted, while in the opening four weeks of the season he completed just six of the 22 he attempted. Alabama continues to look more and more dominant as the season wears on, and Hurts’ ability to find the big play downfield has been paramount to that on the offensive side of the ball.
Big plays as a runner, too
Finding big plays through the air is one thing, but there will be games where his ability to find plays downfield will be tested — whether it’s against a strong group of defensive backs or — as is going to be the case against Texas A&M on Saturday night — by being forced to deal with more pressure than usual. When that happens, Hurts is going to have to find big plays on the ground too, and his stock as a runner couldn’t be higher than it is right now after a huge game against Tennessee in the win on Saturday night.
On the year he has rushed for 480 yards on 70 carries, forcing eight missed tackles and scoring eight touchdowns. 105 of those yards, and 20 of those carries have come on quarterback scrambles, but he has been excellent on designed runs as well. Six of his touchdowns have come on designed quarterback runs off right end, and this is where he did the most damage against Tennessee. Rushing for 93 of his 146 yards, and two of his three touchdowns off right end, Tennessee just couldn’t stop him throughout the game.
Hurts might have been a huge question mark before the season began, but with each passing week he’s solidifying himself as one of the main reasons Alabama keeps winning. He limits mistakes and creates big plays both with his arm and his legs — a combination that makes him one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC.