Jalen Hurts is just getting started as his Alabama career winds down

The outpouring of support of late has resonated with Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. The way people stood and applauded him during graduation a few weeks ago was touching. To be given the Most Inspirational Player award by his teammates at the end-of-year banquet was something he said he really appreciated.

But before the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma last week, as Hurts talked about all the love he has been shown, he also took care to say, "My story's far from over."

"That's something that people said -- not me," he said. "Who said it was over?"

This is what had bothered Hurts all along, going back to his eyebrow-raising comments about a lack of communication from Alabama coaches about the QB battle with Tua Tagovailoa in the preseason: people's assumptions and how he wasn't in control of his own story. Even though Hurts had never laid out his plans, there wasn't a talking head alive who hadn't looked into his or her crystal ball for at least one prediction.

"I've never said anything about transferring," Hurts said. "Those words have never come out of my mouth. ... If I haven't spoken about it, I don't think there's a conversation to be had."

In an ideal world, maybe he'd be right. Maybe everyone would just leave him alone until he announced his next move. But by staying silent, by pointing out what he hadn't said rather than answering questions directly, Hurts left the door open for speculation.

"I've been counted out," he said. "I was supposed to do this, I was supposed to do that. Even last year after the [championship] game, I was supposed to be gone. This year I was supposed to redshirt and do all those things. But I'm here. I'm here for this team."

He later added: "People go through their different trials and tribulations. It's about how you handle it. I got a thing I like to say: 'So what, now what?' Whatever comes in your direction, so what, now what?"

So, Jalen Hurts, now what? After Monday's national championship against Clemson, what comes next?

He isn't going to say, of course, but from speaking to sources close to the situation, the expectation is that Hurts will choose to turn the page on his career at Alabama after the season ends and pick up the story elsewhere. The chatter that he'll transfer might be the worst-kept secret in college football, where schools looking for an upgrade at quarterback are aplenty.

A fierce competitor, he wants to be a starter again, and that can't happen with Tagovailoa in the picture. If Hurts wants a shot to play in the NFL -- and he does -- then he'll be better served finding a new home and a new program in which to prove that he's capable.

Leaving won't be easy, but Hurts has already weathered so much.

Late in his sophomore season, ESPN spoke to Hurts in a one-on-one interview that covered a number of topics, including his recruitment, his early success at Alabama and the criticism he faced following a last-second loss to Clemson in 2017. Even though he was 25-2 as a starter at the time and the defending SEC Offensive Player of the Year, all anyone could seem to talk about were his supposed limitations as a passer.

What was revealing then, and even more so now, was how detached Hurts seemed from it all. The attention thrust upon him didn't suit his private, laid-back personality. He was someone who didn't party and was happiest listening to Al Green or The Isley Brothers while cleaning his apartment. He was a self-described "old soul." When fans happened upon him in public and inevitably freaked out, it was at best amusing and maybe even a little annoying. "Like I'm a myth," was how he described people's view of him. "Like I'm not real."

His father gave him some important perspective then that he appeared to take to heart. A longtime high school coach in Channelview, Texas, Averion Hurts understood the fleeting nature of success and everything that comes with it.

"Here's what Jalen has been told," Averion said. "These people don't love you. They just love what you're doing. They don't care about you because they don't know you. They just like what you're doing. You're always going to have people cheering for you, and those are the people who know and care about you. And you're going to have some people watch you play every game to hope you fail.

"And so that's his mindset. He understands it. He doesn't get caught up in the hype. He's not going to be eaten by the monster of Alabama. Because he knows at the end of the day, the accolades and all of those things can leave quickly."

A month after Averion made those comments, it happened: Hurts was benched at halftime of the national championship game and Tagovailoa led the dramatic, come-from-behind win. An offseason of debate followed. Then came a quarterback competition that culminated with Tagovailoa being named the starter after just one game. Hurts was relegated to backup status, and some went so far as to say that he should consider changing positions.

His story once again had taken on a life of its own. As Tagovailoa played his way to a second-place Heisman Trophy finish, Jalen Hurts the person was replaced by Jalen Hurts the talking point. During an era in which transfers are more common, all anyone wanted to know was whether Hurts would stick it out or redshirt and leave. That he stayed and played whenever called upon was a surprise to many, including at least one of his former coaches at Alabama who assumed he'd try to preserve two years of eligibility rather than one.

In his decade at Alabama, strength coach Scott Cochran has seen remarkable athletes pass through his doors. When things inevitably get tough, when future All-Americans struggle with a lack of reps, it's not unusual for Cochran to provide counsel. But Hurts, he said, is a unique story.

To go through all the ups and downs of the past three years, to handle his demotion the way he did, Cochran said, was nothing short of incredible.

"He's built with something different, that's all I can say," he said. "His family, the way he takes coaching, he's built with something special. He was always ready.

"I always said, 'The phone booth is right there if you want to go turn into Superman.'"

To say there weren't any frustrations or doubts with his decision would be unrealistic. There were times early on when even the coaching staff was unsure what Hurts was thinking. If you watched him on the sideline, especially during that pivotal fourth game against Texas A&M, you would have seen in his body language how difficult it was for him to sit around and wait for his number to be called.

When he took the field a week later against Louisiana for a fifth appearance -- removing the possibility of redshirting and saving a year of eligibility -- he received a standing ovation in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It was surreal. The player many fans had begrudged for calling out Nick Saban and the coaching staff that summer was suddenly a hero again. His choice to stay was cast in terms of loyalty. It was a neat, little narrative: The myth of Jalen Hurts could now include the role of the ultimate teammate.

Never mind that sources indicated that Hurts' reasoning was more pragmatic than that -- even though he is, by all accounts, both loyal and a good teammate. He wanted to stay because he wanted the hands-on coaching offensive coordinator Mike Locksley and quarterbacks coach Dan Enos could provide. And, practically speaking, if he had sat out, he would have been relegated to scout-team QB, and he'd have a limited number of reps and, thus, a limited opportunity to develop as a passer.

Hurts suffered a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss three weeks of practice, and still he didn't shut it down. He competed, and when his number was called during the SEC championship game last month, he was ready.

On the same field (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and against the same opponent (Georgia) where all his trouble began, Hurts came off the bench for an injured Tagovailoa and led Alabama on an improbable, come-from-behind win that saved its spot in the playoff.

It was a storybook ending for Hurts. Saban said he'd never been prouder of a player in his entire life, and it seemed as if all of social media was blowing up with praise for the quarterback and his display of perseverance. Snoop Dogg even gave Hurts a shout-out on Instagram and sent him a congratulatory text.

But when Hurts was asked after the game what it felt like to be in this moment, he answered cryptically, "It kinda feels like I'm breaking my silence." In a hallway after the news conference, he said he didn't really feel like talking. When asked if there was any deeper meaning to his earlier statement, he said, "That's you assuming."

The next morning, during a television interview with ESPN, Hurts recalled last year's national championship game and how, in a hotel room that night, he cried in his parents' arms. He asked, "What are we going to do now?" and he said his dad told him, "We are going to fight."

It was a rare instance of Hurts dropping his guard publicly and admitting that it had been a long year for him.

"I've been fighting for a year," he said, "not knowing what the result would be. Competing, keeping faith, and God was with me yesterday."

Two weeks later, Hurts did exactly what he said he would all along by staying and graduating with a degree in public relations with a minor in communication studies.

He says he has applied to graduate school for sports management. The unanswered follow-up question is, "Which school?"

For now, Hurts is keeping his focus on finishing strong and helping his team any way he can on Monday night. He doesn't want his future to be part of the conversation and has done his best to detach himself from speculation, but he should be used to the chatter by now.

Whatever happens next, Hurts' legacy at Alabama is already set. As many people have pointed out, his is a story worthy of the big screen.

Might he be saving his best act for last? The flashes of improvement we've seen from him this season could add up to something special as a senior.

Ask anyone at Alabama, and they'll tell you just how much better Hurts is. It's not just lip service, either. If you looked past the dramatics of the SEC championship game, his development would have been staring you right in the face.

Enos swelled with pride when he talked about how far Hurts has come -- how he has improved in not just throwing the ball but also reading coverages and keeping his eyes downfield. On Hurts' second play of the game against Georgia, on third-and-long and trailing by a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Enos saw all of that come together at once.

"He stands in there, relocates and waits for the route to open," Enos recalled. "Doesn't panic, his feet are great, and he makes that throw" -- a first-down pass to tight end Irv Smith Jr. -- "then we go on that long drive and score to tie.

"To me, that play right there, that third-down play, I told him, 'That was huge.' Not only for us but for him."

The idea that Hurts, who is a few months younger than Tagovailoa, can't improve has always been ridiculous. He's only 20 years old.

If he can manage all he has to this point, who's to say what he can and can't do?

"His ceiling?" Enos said. "He hasn't even come close to reaching it yet."