Jalen Hurts has captivated two of college football's most rabid fan bases

Hurts 'demands excellence' out of all his Sooners teammates (2:51)

Jalen Hurts says he demands excellence from every Oklahoma player as they get ready to take on LSU in the College Football Playoff. (2:51)

WHEN JALEN HURTS was 6 or 7 years old, he would tag along with his dad and older brother to the summer workouts for athletes at Channelview High School in Texas' Harris County, where his dad coaches. One of the players nicknamed Hurts "Baby Champ" because he thought Jalen looked like former NFL star Champ Bailey. Jalen ran sprints with the high school players. He completed the agility drills. When they lifted weights, he grabbed two-and-a-half-pound dumbbells and did reps.

The athletes also performed back bridges -- lying on their backs, raising their butts 6 inches off the ground and holding it. The competition became who could hold that position the longest. "It ended up being me and the fastest guy in the room," Hurts says, "kind of like a challenge vs. each other."

He remembers that this competition took place on a Tuesday because it was two-piece Tuesday, when he could get two pieces of his beloved Popeyes chicken for 99 cents. He remembers his father walking up to him during the drill. "You want some Popeyes today?" Averion Hurts Sr. said. "You beat him."

So much of what we think with the phrase "coach's kid" is a player's knowledge: a young Bobby Stoops watching film with his dad in a Youngstown, Ohio, kitchen; Kirby Smart getting his teammates lined up correctly on his father's Bainbridge (Georgia) High team; a football savant, trained at a young age to speak X's and O's as a second language. But the secret to Jalen Hurts as a coach's kid doesn't lie merely in his football knowledge. He grew up in the midst of competition. Combine that with an unteachable, voracious desire to win and you have the makings of a player who, even as a 6- or 7-year-old, will rise to a challenge with the poise of someone well beyond his years.

"I made this high school athlete tap out," Jalen said of that Tuesday duel. "He can't go anymore, but I can go all day. And I tore the chicken up that day."

SOMETIME IN THE next couple of weeks -- the oddsmakers say Saturday, when No. 4 Oklahoma faces No. 1 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as a two-touchdown underdog -- Jalen Hurts will conclude a college football career in which he has become the beloved hero of two of the most storied programs in the sport.

He announced his presence at Alabama three years ago, four weeks after his 18th birthday, when he lost a fumble on his very first college football snap. Three possessions later, Hurts redeemed himself with a 39-yard touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart, and the Crimson Tide went on to defeat USC 52-6.

Hurts started the rest of the games that season and came within one play of leading Alabama to a national championship against Deshaun Watson and Clemson. The next year, he led the Tide back to the title game but will be remembered as the guy benched at halftime in favor of freshman Tua Tagovailoa. But the lasting image of Hurts from that night is his reaction when Tagovailoa threw the 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime. Hurts sprinted onto the field, his face riven by an ear-to-ear grin.

We watched the next year, when Tagovailoa won the starting job and Hurts did not clean out his locker. We watched him come back onto the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game, again against Georgia, and save the Tide's season. Now he returns to the College Football Playoff one last time, again to Atlanta, again wearing crimson, this time with the Sooners instead of the Tide.

Hurts will play Saturday in his fourth College Football Playoff in as many seasons. He is in the playoff, and Alabama is not. He stayed healthy, and Tagovailoa did not, and the fates of Oklahoma and Alabama hung on that filament. Hurts doesn't betray even a hint of satisfaction. Alabama, he said, is "the place where I'll always be remembered, and they'll always have a special place in my heart."

Why has Hurts charmed us so? He enjoyed a redemptory season, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting, without saying I told you so. He won a lot, but he did not play perfectly. He made mistakes, not excuses. And when he suffered his very public failures, the quarterback who squats more than 600 pounds shouldered the weight. He put the team before himself, an old-school quality that, in the age of transfer portals and job-hopping coaches, has resonated powerfully across the sport.

GROWING UP A coach's son, Hurts saw being part of a team as second nature. He didn't have a parent egging him on to success. He had a parent egging on everyone's sons to succeed together, Jalen watching all the while.

"I've never put him out of the office if I had to have a conversation with a kid about what he was doing well or what he was not doing well," Averion says. "You never know when your kids are listening or not. I just found out later on that he listens. ... He internalized all those [talks with] all of those kids."

In other words, Jalen learned what not to do. He learned at an early age to sublimate his ego for the collective good. He also embraced his deep-seated competitive instinct early. How many 6-year-olds believe they can perform a physical feat better than a high school athlete? How many high school sophomores walk into their first powerlifting meet and beat their personal best in the squat by 105 pounds?

How many freshman quarterbacks arrive at Alabama to compete against three blue-chip quarterbacks and declare to a coach that every one of those veterans will be forced to transfer? (Spoiler alert: They did.)

"I was just a rare breed. I was different, and I am," Hurts says. "I mean, just different from anybody. It's just the way I was, from how I carried myself, to how I was raised, to how I played, to how I interact with people."

Hurts is a curious mixture of selflessness and arrogance, of stoicism and theater. He will say, "I am humble because I have been humbled," right after describing how he was taught when growing up that he shouldn't have to talk about his game.

"You think Michael Jordan walked into a room and he had to tell people how good he was?" Hurts says. "Michael Jordan walked into a room and people are like, 'There goes Michael.' You know, Tom Brady. 'There goes Tom. There he goes.' ... If you're that guy, you don't have to say anything. Your presence is felt."

He's quiet, not only because he is something of an introvert but because of his self-discipline. You say something to him and he doesn't reflexively respond, behavior we adopt to put the other person at ease. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley listens to a news conference question he doesn't want to answer substantively and he throws the journalist a bone, trying to give some answer that will help. Hurts, meanwhile, will listen to a question he doesn't want to answer and stare straight ahead, eventually providing some variation of "We want to be 1-0 this week." He doesn't do so in some Belichickian form of belittling the entire exercise; he simply won't deviate from the message discipline in his head.

Hurts' default expression has been interpreted by some as confidence, others as arrogance. Some look at it as truculence, while others wonder whether he understood anything at all.

"This guy could be a great poker player in Vegas," Alabama trainer Jeff Allen says.

"You never knew what the kid was thinking," says Tennessee quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, who spent the 2017 season as an analyst on Nick Saban's staff. "You had to peel the layers back to try to figure it out. All of a sudden you get one nugget and then the layers close back up."

Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran, who remains as close to Hurts as to any player who has come through his weight room in 13 seasons, says, "A lot of people thought he was a jerk."

"I wouldn't say he's quiet as much as he's really calculated in his thoughts and his words," says Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who was Alabama's offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018. "He's an old soul. The conversations I've had with the kid over three years is like talking to an adult. You don't feel like you're talking to an 18-year-old kid."

Hurts' expression, with coaches as with writers, is business. It is focus. And that is why he went to Alabama. Hurts saw in Saban a kindred spirit.

"We had the same approach to stuff," Hurts says. "But it's like he didn't realize that I was a mirror image of him. It didn't hit him [that] 'I'm just like you, Coach. I'm pissed, just like you are. I'm eager for opportunities to get better, just like you are.'"

Or, as Averion says of his son and Saban, "They're very similar. They're very ... you're recording, I can't tell you what I call both of them."

Then he does.

"They can both be a--holes," Averion says. "I mean, in a great way. Blunt, to the point, no emotions."

Which is what makes it so curious that it took a while for Saban and his coaches to figure Hurts out. Averion would field the phone calls.

"Coach Saban couldn't read him because he wouldn't show any emotions," Averion says. "If he got a butt-chewing, he'd look the same. So Coach was like, 'OK, I'm not understanding him,' and [Alabama] coaches were telling me, 'Hey, man, if [Jalen] just shows him some emotions and some spirit, you know, he's going to be fine.' They can't understand him. I had to tell Jalen, 'OK, if you want this, you're going to have to give the man some of what he wants.'"

Once they learned to communicate, Saban's appreciation for Hurts mushroomed.

"If there were three or four plays in a game, maybe there's an RPO, he should have thrown rather than hand the ball off, whatever it was, he'd always say, 'I left a lot of money on the table,'" Saban says. "He was never trying to make an excuse for why he did what he did. A lot of times when I correct players, the first thing" -- Saban snaps his fingers -- "they want to do is tell me why they did what they did.

"I don't really care!" he says after a quick chuckle. "It was wrong. I'm trying to tell you how to do it right. It was never that way with him."

There are two things at work there. One is his durability -- Allen characterized him as "incredibly tough. I always knew if Jalen came in here for something it was real. He was not going to come in here crying wolf." The other is the quality of not blinking when the lights go up.

Cochran recalls, weeks after Alabama's national championship victory over Clemson, being in the weight room with Hurts when high school senior quarterback Jawon Pass, No. 228 in the ESPN 300, came through on a visit.

"Jalen kept, like, kind of staring him down," Cochran says. "I'm like, 'J, chill out, man.'"

"You don't think he's gonna come in here and be better than me?" Hurts asked.

"I've never seen him throw a ball. I'm not going to disrespect the guy," Cochran said.

"Y'all don't need him," Hurts said.

"You're an idiot," Cochran said. "It doesn't work like that. This is college. We might need him for scout team, or to compete against you every day."

The reason Cochran remembers the exchange is that Hurts listened.

"You're right," Hurts said. "You're right. My fault." He walked over and introduced himself.

Pass signed with Louisville and didn't join a roster that included not only Hurts but three other quarterbacks: Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. Those three all had been highly rated recruits, all products of the quarterback-industrial complex, all players who had personal coaches and ESPN rankings.

"I remember him telling me in the spring of '16 that basically he's going to win the starting job and all the other quarterbacks would transfer out," Locksley says. "I was shocked."

That fall, Hurts became the second freshman ever to win the SEC Offensive Player of the Year Award. None of the other three quarterbacks appeared on the 2017 Alabama roster.

In three seasons at Alabama, Hurts played under four offensive coordinators. In only one season did he have a dedicated quarterbacks coach. Those conditions usually create problems for the players playing in them, but Hurts went 26-2 as a starter and clearly improved, even as he remained on the sideline for most of his junior season.

Hurts is beloved in Alabama, of course, for how he responded when he didn't play. Saban waited until halftime of the last game of the 2017 season to replace him with Tagovailoa. The Tide offense sputtered late that season in a narrow victory at Mississippi State and a loss at Auburn. Hurts missed a couple of practices before Alabama's semifinal defeat of Clemson because of illness, and the passing game improved.

"I mean, it was noticeable, those two days, because I don't think the ball hit the ground," Locksley recalls. "So we kind of saw what we had. Obviously we knew we had Jalen, but that opened the door to see what we had in Tua and the effect that it had on the others."

Tagovailoa is a once-in-a-generation talent, a passer whose feet process information as rapidly as his eyes, who could find the second and third options downfield as quickly as any college quarterback in recent memory. In many ways, Tagovailoa was an un-Jalen: He distributed the ball more than Hurts did and ran less, which meant more hands got to touch it. He also never met a stranger; as a freshman, he was as likely to walk into the coaches' offices singing and playing the ukulele as with a playbook.

Though Kyler Murray won the 2018 Heisman, Tagovailoa won the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards and joined Murray as a consensus All-American. In less than three seasons, Tagovailoa already has set the school career record for passing touchdowns (87).

"Being replaced, that was something that, obviously, as a competitor you hate for it to happen, but me creating bad energy would have been horrible for the team," Hurts says. "Me pouting and huffing and puffing and doing all those things would have done no good for us as a team. So I was supportive. I wanted to see [Tagovailoa] ball. I wanted to see him go win it. I just wanted to see the team win."

The cooling salve of winning a championship lasted only so long. When Hurts learned the following August that he had not won the starting job for the 2018 season, the discipline that fuels his competitive fire crumpled. After Saban told Hurts of his decision, the quarterback lost his steely resolve.

"I can remember him sitting opposite my desk," Locksley says. "That's the first time I had ever seen the kid cry. He was able to verbalize, 'How do I deal with this? I was the guy. I won 20-whatever games and now I'm not the guy. How am I supposed to manage it?'"

Locksley tried to explain that it happened in the adult world every day, only not so publicly. "I can't tell you how this is going to benefit you," he said. "I can't tell you when. I can't tell you how. But going through what you're going through is going to make you a better person, make you a better quarterback, make you a better leader."

"I've always felt like the kid responded the right way," Locksley says.

Hurts played more than the typical backup might have, thanks to play packages designed for him by Locksley. Under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, Hurts improved more than the typical backup. When the time came, Hurts proved himself ready.

"Every time he came to me," Cochran says, "I said, 'Dude, I just have this feeling that you're going to go in and be Superman. You're going to take off the glasses, go in the phone booth and put on your Superman outfit and come out and save the day. I don't know when it's going to be. It could be Game 7.'"

"No," Hurts would respond, "it's going to be definitely against Georgia, right?"

Alabama played Georgia in the SEC championship game, a reprise of the national championship game the year before, right down to being back in Atlanta. Hurts recalls that being his best week of practice all season.

"In my head, I just felt like, 'Heisman front-runner goes down, and I come in and win the game,'" he says. "I knew it was going to happen the whole time. Same stadium, same team, same uniforms, same sideline. I mean, just different hair."

Locksley remembers how, on the game-tying drive, Hurts converted third downs to three different receivers. Pretty good for a guy who had trouble finding his second receiver downfield. Cochran remembers how, when Hurts scored the winning touchdown on a 15-yard run with 1:04 to play, he mimed pulling his shirt apart to reveal an "S" on his chest. Anyone who had watched Saban remain impervious to emotion throughout his career recalls the head coach's postgame television interview, when, his arm around Hurts, he could barely choke out the words.

"I'm so proud of this guy for what he's done this year," Saban said. "I can't even tell you."

Two guys who don't emote, emoting about each another.

"I think that's why we always had a love for each other," Hurts says of the similarities with his former head coach, "and our relationship will never die because of that connection."

That's what made his decision to transfer to Oklahoma so emotionally wrenching.

HURTS MISSES HIS Alabama teammates. After the Tide beat Tennessee this year, linebacker Terrell Lewis posted a quick video that Hurts sent of himself smoking a cigar, the traditional rite of the winning team in the Tide-Volunteer rivalry.

"He didn't leave because he wasn't playing," Averion says of his son. "He left because he was used to playing."

The will-he-or-won't-he saga, in regard to transferring and redshirting, scarred Hurts. He despised being the subject of near-daily speculation in the local and national media when he had spoken to no one and made no decision. The one time he did speak up, at Alabama media day at the beginning of August practice, he said that throughout the spring, no one, "coaches included," had asked him how he felt. This came as a surprise to, among others, the coaches who had talked to him.

Hurts responded to the subsequent blowback basically by refusing to do any more interviews his junior year. By the time he decided to transfer to Oklahoma, he had drained the drama out of the saga. He announced the move not at a news conference, or in a LeBron-like taking-my-talents interview, but in a column on the Players' Tribune website.

It was no small decision. All he chose to do was replace the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Sooners Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield.

Riley firmly believes that Hurts came to Oklahoma because he wasn't promised the starting job. Hurts won that and something nearly as important. The man who had been so difficult to read in Tuscaloosa walked into a locker room filled with strangers and by August had been elected team captain. It helped that Alabama had just beaten Oklahoma 45-34 in a playoff semifinal last season.

"Almost instantly, he clicked," senior cornerback Parnell Motley says. "Guys just kind of took it in, almost like a gift. He's been to a place that we're all striving to get to. He knows what it looks like. He knows what it feels like."

Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore recalls being in a goal-line defense in the playoff and Hurts sticking his nose into the pile.

"Both sides met up, and he just wouldn't go down," Gallimore says. "He's even a lot stronger than he looks."

One night after spring ball, Gallimore says, he hung out with Hurts, talking about how to make the team tighter. It got late, and Gallimore went home, showered and got into bed. It was about 1 a.m. His phone rang. Hurts suggested they go work out. "He did shoulders, quarterback drills, footwork. He did some upper-body stuff. I did a little of my D-line stuff." Until 3 or 4 in the morning.

In so many ways, Riley is no Saban. Riley is an extrovert and, at age 36, he's 32 years younger. But Riley, like Saban, had to figure out how to communicate with Hurts.

"I told him from the beginning," Riley says, "and I've had a couple of times when I've had to tell him through the year, 'Dude, I don't have three years with you. I'm not a mind reader. We don't have time to go through all this get-to-know-you.' I've had to tell him, 'I need some feedback.'"

It still took some adjustment.

"Lincoln said, 'Hey, let's go do this and enjoy it and have fun!'" Averion says, "and [Jalen] said, 'My fun is winning.'"

The father, in a here-we-go-again tone, said of his son, "Oh god."

Hurts' performance on the field for Oklahoma speaks to how well coach and quarterback did connect. In a new offense, with yet another coordinator, a young offensive line, against new defenses, Hurts threw for 3,634 yards and 32 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,255 yards and 18 more scores.

He's 38-3 as a starter, with nearly 12,500 yards of total offense and 122 touchdowns thrown for or scored. His 200.3 passing efficiency rating this season surpassed the NCAA record set by Tagovailoa last year, but it ranks third behind, in second place, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, and in first place, yep, Tagovailoa. Riley, whose previous two quarterbacks became the No. 1 picks in the last two NFL drafts, says there are "several systems at the next level" in which Hurts would thrive. One veteran NFL scout who has studied Hurts extensively believes he is a middle-round selection, wondering how Hurts can be such an effective broken-field runner and not react with the same efficacy when looking downfield at a secondary in midplay.

But the NFL talk can wait at least one more game. At Alabama, they are all Sooners this week. They would be even if Oklahoma weren't playing LSU. The thought that Hurts has somehow put Saban and Alabama in its place mystifies Crimson Tide fans, who love him for what he did for their team and for what he didn't do for it. They will cheer for Oklahoma, for Hurts to once again pull apart his shirt and reveal an "S" on his chest. It may take that for the Sooners to beat the Tigers.

Rest assured that Hurts' former teammates will be watching. Allen remembers being in the Tide's makeshift training room at the team hotel on Oct. 26. Tagovailoa had injured his right ankle the week before and wouldn't be playing that night against Arkansas.

"So he's with me, getting training 24/7," Allen says. "We're in the training room with the TV on. It's the Oklahoma-Kansas State game. There's Tua, glued to that game. 'C'mon, Jalen. C'mon, buddy. C'mon. You got this.' He was watching his buddy play. He wants him to be successful."

If nothing else, Hurts has achieved one goal. When he leaves college football, whether it's on Saturday or after the national championship game on Jan. 13, the sport will watch him walk away and say, "There goes Jalen Hurts." His presence was felt.