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College Football Playoff: Jalen Hurts, an unflappable true freshman QB

When something goes wrong, Jalen Hurts doesn’t overreact. His days of heading home in his dad’s red pickup after a game listening to blunt critiques of his play prepared him well.
When something goes wrong, Jalen Hurts doesn’t overreact. His days of heading home in his dad’s red pickup after a game listening to blunt critiques of his play prepared him well.
Published Jan. 7, 2017

Jalen Hurts could not have had a worse welcome-to-college-football than his first snap at Alabama.

He took the ball in the season opener, faked a handoff and fumbled. USC, already leading, recovered near midfield. Disaster — and perpetually scowling coach Nick Saban — loomed.

"I'm sure many people thought I was done with," Hurts said.

They, obviously, were wrong.

They didn't know the way he handled hard coaching in the first few days on his father's varsity team at Texas' Channelview High. They didn't know about the rides in Big Red, how the blunt criticism might run all the way until the garage door rose at home.

They didn't know what the rest of the sport has since discovered, one of the key reasons why the No. 1 Crimson Tide and its true freshman quarterback can both make history in Monday's College Football Playoff national title game at Raymond James Stadium.

"He doesn't get rattled," guard Korren Kirven said.

That, more than anything, explains why Hurts blossomed into the SEC's offensive player of the year and is on track to join Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway as the only starting quarterbacks to win national titles as true freshmen.

Granted, Hurts' talent is unquestioned. He joined 'Bama last January as one of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects in the country. After Lane Kiffin worked Hurts out in high school, the Tide's then-offensive coordinator told Saban that Hurts could be a future first-round draft pick.

But it's Hurts' uncanny poise that has impressed his teammates and rival coaches, allowing an 18-year-old to lead Alabama to a 14-0 season and the cusp of its fifth national championship in eight seasons.

"That's just the demeanor I have," Hurts said. "I know I was the same in high school."

His father made sure of it.

Hurts said his dad, Averion, would be blunt as his high school coach. The coaching could be hard, and it might continue after film sessions, on the drive home in their red pickup.

Hurts accepted it. Soon, he began to crave it. By the time he arrived in Tuscaloosa, he was ready for someone to take over his dad's role — even if that someone was one of the fieriest coaches in the game.

"I came to college knowing I've been coached — my daddy coached me," he said. "So Coach Saban chewing me out or being blunt with me, it's like, 'Okay, I'm going to take it and go.' "

Hurts has given Saban some things to chew on. His 57 passing yards in last week's Peach Bowl win over Washington were the Tide's lowest in a game since at least 2008. He threw eight interceptions in an eight-game span. He has fumbled in six consecutive games (but lost only two).

But Hurts has avoided more freshman moments by refusing to let one mistake become two. He enters Monday's game against Clemson with 14 turnovers (nine interceptions, five fumbles). He answered seven of them by leading Alabama to a score on its next possession, including his go-ahead 21-yard touchdown run at LSU. Two of the other seven drives ended in missed field goals.

Hurts' calmness is so contagious that even senior tight end O.J. Howard — the MVP of last year's title game — looks to him during moments of frustration.

"He's only a freshman," Kirven said, "but he already had the maturity of an upperclassman."

That doesn't mean that Hurts is immune to nerves.

Before the USC game, he was admittedly wide-eyed — a Texas kid about to make his college debut in the Dallas Cowboys' colossal AT&T Stadium. His roommate, receiver Calvin Ridley, noticed the jitters with Hurts' first-snap fumble.

"Then that was out the window," Ridley said.

Hurts simply did what his father taught him to do on the fields and roads back home.

He moved on, unrattled, ready for whatever comes next.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com.