Beware the quarterback runs, Alabama and Mississippi State
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Jalen Hurts and Nick Fitzgerald are still cultivating their passing abilities.
In the meantime, No. 1 Alabama's Hurts and Mississippi State's Fitzgerald are already good enough runners to make any defense wary. They enter Saturday's meeting as the Southeastern Conference's top running quarterbacks, especially with Texas A&M's Trevor Knight going down with a shoulder injury.
Fitzgerald is the Bulldogs' primary running threat while Hurts has also made a number of his plays with his feet, especially when the passing game isn't clicking for the Crimson Tide.
Hurts topped 100 rushing yards in both of the Tide's closest games, against Mississippi and No. 19 LSU. The LSU game was the first when the freshman produced more yards rushing (114) than passing (107), and Hurts' 21-yard run accounted for the only touchdown in a 10-0 Alabama win.
Both quarterbacks are still works in progress as passers.
''We're focused on trying to get our quarterback to be a little more complete in what he needs to do to be an all-around good quarterback,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''We're certainly trying to make progress with a young player and he's responding in a positive way, so we're going to continue to work on that.''
Ditto with Fitzgerald, who's coming off two big games. The sophomore and Dak Prescott's successor has accounted for 927 total yards and 11 touchdowns in Mississippi State's wins over Samford and No. 10 Texas A&M.
''The thing that helps him is he's got great athletic ability which allows him to improvise and make things happen on the field while he's developing to be a passer,'' Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said.
Fitzgerald is eighth in the SEC in passing, one spot ahead of Hurts.
Meanwhile, both quarterbacks are finding ways to make plays. Fitzgerald is the SEC's fifth-leading rusher with 839 yards and eight touchdowns. Hurts' 635 yards ranks 12th but he has also run for 10 TDs.
Hurts has the luxury of a deep stable of running help that includes three tailbacks who have produced 100-yard games. But when in doubt, he has been the most likely quarterback to take off running of Saban's Alabama tenure.
''His athleticism is a huge part of our offense and has really contributed this year,'' Tide center Bradley Bozeman said. ''We're really lucky to have him on our squad.''
Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs will face the nation's top run defense. Hurts may have more passing opportunities than he did against LSU's strong secondary since he's facing the league's worst pass defense.
In the meantime, Saban has grown accustomed to the increased prevalence of rushing quarterbacks, though in past seasons it has mostly been from the perspective of trying to defend them.
''We went through the Wildcat phase where we ran some of these plays with a running back, but you knew that that guy couldn't pass,'' Saban said. ''Now, we're running some of the same kind of plays as part of the spread that are actually with a quarterback.
''When you have a talented guy that's big and strong and athletic and can throw it pretty well, too, it makes it a very challenging thing to do to be able to play both of those things.''
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