No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) is still undefeated heading into this weekend’s contest with No. 9 Tennessee (5-1, 2-1 SEC), and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts is a huge reason why.
He’s been a revelation for Alabama’s offense, getting things done for the Tide both with his arm and his feet. He’s thrown for 1,242 yards and nine touchdowns compared to just two interceptions in six games, which is extremely impressive for a true freshman. Usually younger players transitioning to the college level go through some major ups and downs — see Georgia true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason — but Hurts has been as steady as can be for the Crimson Tide.
What has made Hurts so efficient and important to Alabama’s offense is his mobility. Not that Alabama’s quarterbacks as of late haven’t been able to move in the pocket, but more often than not, Nick Saban’s quarterbacks have been pro-style gunslingers, more comfortable stepping up and throwing in the pocket than moving around and scrambling when things break down.
Here’s a look at the rushing totals from Alabama’s recent quarterbacks. The numbers alone speak volumes.
Greg McElroy (2007-2010): 71 total rushing yards and two touchdowns
A.J. McCarron (2010-2013): negative 64 total rushing yards and three touchdowns
Blake Sims (2011-2014): 705 total rushing yards and nine touchdowns
Jake Coker (2014-2015): 81 total yards and two touchdowns
Sims is the obviously outlier among the above group, but even his highest single-season rushing total was just 350 yards (with seven touchdowns) in 2014. Hurts, on the other hand, has already rushed for 296 yards and five touchdowns at the halfway point of the season. There’s a great chance he’ll surpass Sims’ single-season rushing high before November, and he very well could do it this weekend against Tennessee.
So no, Hurts isn’t the prototypical Alabama quarterback, but so far that’s been a great thing for the Crimson Tide. He’s not just a game-manager, he’s a game changer; that makes Alabama’s offense that much more potent.
Not only do opposing defenses have to deal with Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough in the backfield, but they also have to account for Hurts as a runner. As soon as they start focusing on the run, Lane Kiffin and Saban can pull the switch and dial up the play-action pass, with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard and Gehrig Dieter at Hurts’ disposal.
Is it any surprise that Alabama’s offense is ranked No. 1 in the SEC in scoring, at 44.8 points per game?
“Well, he’s done a nice job and he’s improved every week. I think his disposition as a player certainly enhances that, to some degree,” Saban said of Hurts.
“He doesn’t seem to get too rattled by things and even when he makes an error or a mistake, he goes to the next play. I think that is what has been really, really helpful for him to play with poise. I think it’s going to be really important, especially playing on the road again, that he can maintain that level of poise that will certainly be necessary this week against Tennessee.”
Poise is one major aspect of Hurts’ game that must show up against the Vols, but he’ll also have to make plays with his legs.
Tennessee has one of the best pass-rushers in the game, defensive end Derek Barnett. The Big Orange superstar will make it his goal to teach Hurts a few rookie lessons on the road in Knoxville. Barnett is 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds. He plays with a blend of explosiveness and speed that makes him hard to block for offensive linemen. Even Alabama’s offensive line will have its hands full with him.
One way Alabama can counter Barnett is to shade or chip running backs in protection to his side, but Hurts can help himself by feeling the pressure and using his feet to escape it. The best way to frustrate an elite pass-rusher as a quarterback is to be where he doesn’t expect you to be. That’s a huge advantage that Hurts has coming into this matchup.
Alabama would be wise to utilize Hurts’ full skill set to keep Tennessee’s defensive front off balance.
Whether through planned runs, bootlegs or simply scrambling when the pocket collapses, Hurts’ mobility and explosiveness at quarterback could be the most relevant X-factor in this huge matchup between ancient SEC rivals.