TAMPA – On Monday, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts will attempt to become the first true freshman quarterback in 31 years to lead his team to a national championship.
He’ll have to do it without the coach most instrumental in his success to date.
Lane Kiffin’s earlier-than-expected exit to FAU and Steve Sarkisian’s sooner-than-expected promotion to offensive coordinator is without question the most unusual aspect surrounding the Alabama-Clemson rematch. And no one is more affected by the development than the Tide’s 18-year-old quarterback. Kiffin was his position coach.
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Hurts describes the situation as “kind of weird.”
“It was kind of a sudden change for me because it’s like, you’ve been getting coached by this guy all year and it’s a sudden change coming into probably the biggest game of the season,” Hurts said at Saturday’s championship game Media Day. “So it’s really different, but I think we feel good about the situation we’re in, and we all think that [Sarkisian] will do a great job come Monday.”
While Sarkisian has been on staff all season as a behind-the-scenes “analyst,” his interaction with Hurts and his teammates was limited. He arrived in Tuscaloosa shortly after Alabama’s opener against USC and until this week worked mostly on film breakdown. He was not allowed to coach in practice.
“I really didn’t know who he was at first,” Hurts said. “I really didn’t introduce myself to him or meet him. I didn’t really know of him. Then it came a point throughout the season where I introduced myself and we kind of talked a little bit. And that was that.”
Sarkisian, who watched last week’s Peach Bowl semifinal win over Washington from the press box, will be on the sideline against Clemson in large part to better communicate with Hurts.
“I’ve always called plays from the field. I’m comfortable there,” Sarkisian said. “I think it’s important for me to have the one-on-one contact with Jalen on the field, see his demeanor, really talk through things.”
Hurts played arguably his worst game of the season in the 24-7 Peach Bowl victory over Washington, completing 7-of-14 passes for just 57 yards. While myriad reasons likely led to the “mutual decision” to part ways with Kiffin — both publicly and behind the scenes – there’s been much criticism of his play-calling against the Huskies.
As much as Kiffin helped Hurts be successful for 14 games, some around the program are hoping Sarkisian will have his own positive impact in a short amount of time.
“I have a really good relationship with Jalen,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a kid who loves football. He’s a gym rat. He works at the game. Those are the kind of guys I like to be around. They make my job easier.”
Backup QB Cooper Bateman said Sarkisian — who will take over as coordinator for good next season — has already changed the way Alabama practices.
“It’s been awesome this week,” Bateman said. “Sark’s brought a little more tempo, a little more energy on the practice field which is not a bad thing. Honestly, we needed it.”
Hurts, Sarkisian and, of course, Nick Saban all insist not much will change with the coordinator switch. Alabama is not going to change its offense in a week. The game plan would have been the same regardless. And Sarkisian’s play-calling roots date to when he shared those duties with Kiffin at USC under Pete Carroll.
Bateman described Kifin and Sarkisian as “cut from the same cloth.”
But for Hurts, it means a different voice in his ear when he comes to the sideline after a three-and-out or a turnover. The play-calling aspect may seem more impactful to fans and media than the players.
“The only change is there’s somebody different in the seat,”Hurts said. “There’s somebody different calling the plays or making a different game plan, whatever it is.
“But at the end of the day as a player, you have to execute what’s called. None of that’s going to change. My job hasn’t changed. My receiver’s job hasn’t changed. Nothing changes. Somebody telling me what to do, that’s the only thing that’s changed.”
It’s an unprecedented change the week of a national championship game. It’s anyone’s guess what effect it will have.