How the Jalen Hurts experiment was conducted successfully

Is Jalen Hurts a limited QB? (1:18)

ESPN's Mark May doesn't agree that Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is not a reliable passing QB, as evidenced by his 22 touchdown passes this season. (1:18)

ATLANTA -- Shortly after Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts gave Crimson Tide fans a glimpse of what was to come in the spring game on April 16, he pulled his father aside at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

"Dad," Hurts told his father, "my life is about to change."

"Just wait until you step on the field," Averion Hurts replied.

A year ago, Jalen Hurts was only a few weeks removed from high school when he joined the Crimson Tide for practices before the College Football Playoff National Championship. He mimicked Clemson star Deshaun Watson while running the scout team, and his teammates saw enough to know that he would be a factor in Alabama's quarterback race this season.

"He was on the scout team breaking our defense off," Alabama center Bradley Bozeman said. "It was pretty impressive."

Now, after a whirlwind ascension in which he became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide since 1984 and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Hurts will try to move a step closer to winning a national championship when No. 1 Alabama plays No. 4 Washington in a College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on Saturday (3 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App). Hurts, 18, would become only the second true freshman to lead a team to a national title. Oklahoma freshman Jamelle Holieway guided the Sooners to the 1985 national championship after Troy Aikman broke his leg early in the season.

"I've never put limitations on my game," Hurts said. "For the people on the outside looking in, I'm sure they didn't think it was a possibility."

The odds were certainly stacked against Hurts' potential to win Alabama's starting quarterback job. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had never started a true freshman under center, and Alabama's previous two quarterbacks, Jake Coker and Blake Sims, waited until their senior seasons to start.

"You can't really coach experience," Saban said. "You can't really coach maturity at a position. Guys that have played for a long time have this sort of foundation of knowledge and experience. The only way you can get that is to do it."

Five days before the Crimson Tide opened the season against USC on Sept. 3, Saban announced that redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and junior Cooper Bateman were competing for the starting job. Hurts and sophomore David Cornwell were behind them on the depth chart.

"We had three quarterbacks that were all older than him," Saban said. "They all had been here longer. I always tell guys we'll give everybody an opportunity and everybody has a chance to compete when you come here. Jalen would probably be the first to tell you that there are things he needs to grow and develop as a quarterback."

While Saban seemed committed to choosing a more experienced quarterback, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was enamored with Hurts' athleticism and running ability. Kiffin believed Hurts would bring another dimension to Alabama's offense, even if he wasn't as polished throwing the ball as the other contenders.

Kiffin, who was hired as Florida Atlantic's head coach earlier this month and is leaving Alabama after the playoff, had been one of Hurts' biggest supporters. When the Crimson Tide were debating whether to offer Hurts a scholarship in the spring of 2015, Kiffin traveled to Channelview, Texas, to evaluate him. Kiffin went back to Tuscaloosa and told Saban that Hurts was a potential NFL first-round draft pick.

"I watched the whole workout, just him throwing to one kid," Kiffin said. "We were mixed on [Hurts] because he was really raw. I said, 'Let me go see him.' I remember saying to [Saban], 'This guy had a first-round-draft-pick workout. That workout I just went to, if he were draft-eligible, he would get drafted.' He had big hands and could rip the ball."

In fact, Kiffin said Hurts reminded him of a smaller version of Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton, who won the 2010 Heisman Trophy as Auburn's quarterback.

"He's a powerlifter and plenty strong," Kiffin said. "He could be a middle linebacker, but he threw the ball really, really well. He reminded me of a shorter Cam Newton."

Persuading Saban to recruit Hurts was one thing, but persuading Saban to start him as a true freshman was an entirely different challenge. Kiffin knew he needed help in changing Saban's mind.

In late August, a few Alabama players, including offensive tackle Cam Robinson and receiver ArDarius Stewart, approached Saban about giving Hurts a chance to play against the Trojans.

"We had our doubts," Bozeman said. "But Coach Saban puts the best people on the field, and Jalen proved he was one of the best."

Saban discussed the idea with the team's leadership council.

"I think the players sort of felt exactly like I felt that, to put it in their terms, 'This guy has a lot of dog,'" Saban said. "He can make plays, but he doesn't understand how to do everything quite yet. I told them we were going to start Blake in the first game because he had a little more experience, but we were putting this guy in on the third series and we'll see what he does."

When Hurts replaced Barnett late in the first quarter against the Trojans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, he promptly fumbled away his first collegiate snap. But it was what Hurts did next that ultimately won over his teammates and coaches. He rebounded to throw two touchdowns and run for two more scores in a 52-6 rout of USC.

"There's nobody that feels worse when he doesn't get it right than [Hurts] does," Saban said. "You just need to correct him and help him. He's not sensitive to any sort of criticism; maybe that's because his dad was a coach."

If Saban had any concern left about Hurts running his offense, his doubts were answered the day after Alabama beat USC. When Saban met with Hurts to break down six or seven plays from the game, he was surprised to learn that his freshman quarterback had already watched the film.

"I don't remember ever meeting with him where he hadn't watched the film," Saban said.

The next week, Saban named Hurts the starter after he passed for 287 yards with two touchdowns in a 38-10 victory over Western Kentucky. In his first career start at Ole Miss, he passed for 158 yards and ran for 146 yards, helping the Crimson Tide come back from a 21-point deficit in a 48-43 win.

"He has a really good ability, even when things are not going well for him, of not going into the tank or whatever you want to call it," Saban said. "He sticks with it and plays better as the game goes on."

In 12 games, Hurts has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,592 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 841 rushing yards set an Alabama single-season record for quarterbacks, breaking the previous mark of 791 set by Steadman Shealy in 1979.

Kiffin said he believes Hurts hasn't even yet scratched the surface of what he's capable of doing.

"There are times he can't tell you a protection to save his life, but it doesn't matter," Kiffin said. "He can create. When it's not there, the other team can't tackle him."

Eight months ago, when Hurts and his father talked after the spring game, they couldn't have known how prophetic their conversation would be.

Hurts' life has completely changed. He's so popular on Alabama's campus that he often wears a hoodie to hide his noticeable dreadlocks. Hurts could only laugh when he saw a child dressed up like him for Halloween, using pipe cleaners to mimic his hair.

"It's my life now," Hurts said.