The drive that followed got most of the attention—and rightfully so—because it brought Clemson a national title and cemented Deshaun Watson’s legacy as one of college football’s all-time great quarterbacks. But perhaps we should examine the penultimate touchdown drive of the national title game more closely and consider what it might mean for the quarterback who engineered it.
Remember the circumstances? Clemson had just taken a 28–24 lead thanks to a Wayne Gallman touchdown run. Alabama got the ball back on its own 32-yard line with 4:38 remaining. A true freshman quarterback, who had struggled for weeks to throw the ball with any accuracy, had to drive his team 68 yards for a touchdown. Against one of the most ferocious pass rushes in college football. With a playcaller who had been on the job for eight days. In the national title game.
And he did it.
Forget everything else about Jalen Hurts’ first season as Alabama’s quarterback and just think about that drive. When the Crimson Tide absolutely, positively needed a touchdown against a defense that had shut down the offense for most of the second half on the game’s biggest stage, Hurts delivered that touchdown. That drive ended with him sprinting 30 yards up the middle and into the end zone. And if almost anyone other than Watson had been the other quarterback, Alabama would have another national title.
Hurts, who will begin his first spring practice as an incumbent starter on Tuesday, might be the most intriguing player in college football. At the start of last season, he looked as if he might make Alabama invincible. By season’s end, his throwing was the Crimson Tide’s biggest liability. But even though Hurts only completed one pass on that last drive—remember, ArDarius Stewart hit O.J. Howard for 24 yards on a trick play—the march down the field showed a spark that suggests Hurts can become exactly what we thought he could be when he first took over the starting job.
When Hurts won the starting job with his performance against USC in Alabama’s season opener, he appeared to be the one who would bridge the gap between the pro style offense Alabama ran for years and the spread-out, read option-heavy up-tempo schemes that had taken over the game. An offense that could combine those schemes would be virtually unstoppable—especially when paired with the kind of talent Alabama can collect. But then something strange happened. Either smart defensive coordinators figured out how to make Hurts uncomfortable as a thrower, or Hurts regressed as a passer after hitting a freshman wall or Alabama’s coordinators deliberately played more conservatively with Hurts.
The truth is it probably was a mix of those three factors. Go back and watch Hurts throw in that first game against USC compared to that final game against Clemson. He threw more confidently early in the season than he did late. He also threw for more yards, which would make more sense if Alabama’s schedule included all the cupcakes early. But it didn’t. It was fairly evenly distributed. Through the first seven games, Hurts completed 60% of his passes and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. While the later results would suggest that Hurts’ accuracy fell off, the truth is he completed a higher percentage of passes (62.1) in Alabama’s final eight games. But his per-attempt average dropped to 6.7 yards.
By that national title game, Alabama had become more of a horizontal passing team. Steve Sarkisian—the offensive coordinator for that game only—took few risks down the field. And given the dominance of Alabama’s defense last year, that wasn’t a terrible game plan. As long as the Crimson Tide didn’t hand Clemson points with a turnover, they had a chance. The only time Sarkisian took the playcalling handcuffs off Hurts was that final possession. He had no other choice. And Hurts put Alabama in the end zone.
With Sarkisian off to run the Atlanta Falcons’ offense and Lane Kiffin cruising Del Boca Vista (Phase Three) as FAU’s head coach, former New England Patriots tight ends coach—and three-time NFL offensive coordinator—Brian Daboll takes over Hurts and the rest of the Crimson Tide offense. It will be curious to see how the NFL transplant handles the parts of Alabama’s offense that were installed as responses to changes in the college game. Hurts is there specifically because coach Nick Saban wanted a quarterback who can run and throw. So is Tua Tagovailoa, the freshman from Hawaii who will try to take the job from Hurts just as Hurts took the job from all of Alabama’s (since transferred) older quarterbacks last year. Presumably, Alabama’s offense will not revert to the AJ McCarron era.
Saban’s plan will likely evolve while still keeping a pro-style foundation. That is crucial to prepare Alabama’s offensive players for the NFL. The list of players drafted is the Crimson Tide’s best recruiting tool, so to keep the superior talent coming, Saban knows the players need to be prepared for the next level. But Saban also wants to take advantage of what the college rules allow, so don’t expect him to scrap the wrinkles Alabama began adding in 2014 when Blake Sims started at quarterback.
If Hurts can use this offseason to develop as a passer, he might ultimately leave college football with the same kind of reputation as Watson. Few people could handle the pressure of starting at quarterback at Alabama as a true freshman. Saban knew that, and that’s why he was cautious last summer to make Hurts the starter even though then-coordinator Kiffin was pushing for it. “You’ve got to make sure they’re ready,” Kiffin said in December. “If you put them in and they play bad, they may be ruined forever. … Alabama is so football everywhere you go. When you do great, you’re going to hear you’re really great all the time. When you do bad, you’re going to hear you’re really bad all the time.”
But Hurts could manage that pressure. He lost a fumble on his first play against USC and still went out and staked his claim to the QB1 spot. “I’m sure many people thought I was done after I fumbled the ball,” Hurts said in December. “My teammates didn’t give up on me, and my coaches didn’t give up on me. That’s all that matters to me.” He proved it again at Ole Miss when he led the Tide on a touchdown drive immediately after coughing up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown that put the Crimson Tide down 21. Hurts wound up throwing for 158 yards and running for 146. Most importantly, Alabama wound up winning 48–43. “There’s this meme somewhere,” Hurts said. “Jalen Hurts when he throws an interception. Jalen Hurts when he throws a touchdown. Jalen Hurts when he fumbles. It’s just a straight face.”
That straight face will help Hurts now. Saban does not like his players to get comfortable. Tagovailoa will get his chances even if Hurts appears to have firm control of the job. Hurts clearly understands Saban’s motivational style, and it doesn’t seem to bother him. “Everybody thinks he’s mean for some reason,” said Hurts, who claims the “ass chewings” from his high school coach father Averion Hurts surpassed any Saban has delivered. “I don’t know why. He’s a cool guy.”
That description will get tested if Hurts doesn’t improve as a passer this offseason. But if Hurts stays cool and evolves into the quarterback his last drive suggests he can be, the possibilities for Alabama’s offense may be limitless.