If the game had stopped ended 126 seconds before it did, Jalen Hurts would have been the hero; not Hunter Renfrow or Deshaun Watson.
Deep into the fourth quarter of Alabama’s 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game last January, Hurts dropped back, quickly scanned the field, evaded a rusher and then took off — gliding across an avenue of green grass before reaching the end zone. The 30-yard touchdown scamper gave Alabama a lead that was short-lived.
It also captured the essence of what Hurts was his freshman year — a reluctant passer and a willing escape artist. That’s expected to change this season with the Tide’s newest coordinator, Brian Daboll, calling the shots.
Daboll comes from the NFL, where quarterbacks are rarely sent into the teeth of defenses and instead are instructed to unleash the ball as fast as they can to avoid harm.
"I am really interested to see how much they incorporate Jalen into the offense as a runner," said Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage. "That was a huge key for Bama last year. I think ideally you would like to be able to dial that back and not lean on him as much as a runner."
Last season, Hurts was credited with 191 carries — 20 of which counted as sacks. Some of his rush attempts were designed zone-read plays while others were improvisational runs. Hurts had a tendency to quickly bail from the pocket when he couldn’t pinpoint an open receiver. And last November Saban offered a veiled criticism of Hurts for not exhibiting enough patience.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was eager to shed his freshman label and take ownership of the offense. According to others, he has. But Hurts still has a chip on his shoulder after absorbing his share of criticism.
"I think sometimes guys that have success running as quarterback, it’s a little more difficult for them to get the mindset that they want to be a complete player because they know they have the ability to take off running all the time, because that’s when they have success and that’s when they get a lot of positive self-gratification from," Saban said then.
This offseason — after Hurts completed 31 of 65 pass attempts for 326 yards and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s last three games of 2016 — Saban said the goal was to make the offense more balanced and the team’s rising sophomore quarterback a more competent passer.
In the A-Day spring game, Hurts appeared to have made some progress toward that end, completing 64 percent of his throws for 301 yards.
Asked this week about whether he feels more comfortable going through his progressions and operating within the pocket, Hurts replied, "It’s a little different coming from a maturity aspect and being coached by Coach Daboll and all that. I think a lot of stuff has gotten better."
But seconds later, Hurts made it clear he hasn’t completely eschewed his approach from last season, when he was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
"If [the read is] not there and you have the ability to take off and make a play, then you do that," he asserted.
Hurts’ versatile skill-set gives Alabama flexibility, which is one of the reasons he won the starting job as a freshman after his very first game and has had a stranglehold over it ever since. But Saban doesn’t want the Tide to rely on Hurts’ athleticism as much as it did in 2016.
"I think his ability to scramble is still a tremendous asset for him," Saban said. "I think he’s learned how to use that a little bit better and be an effective passer. I think systematically we’re better in that regard."
That was the goal when the offseason began in the wake of the crushing Clemson defeat, when Hurts’ final highlight was a run.
This year, it may very well be a pass, as Savage believes the Tide could return to the more traditional, Pro Style system Alabama used before the arrival of former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Teammates around Hurts say the quarterback has become more comfortable working within the confines of the pocket.
"You can tell he’s got presence about him, commanding the offense," said left tackle Jonah Williams. "I wouldn’t say much has changed. He’s the type of guy that’s going to make plays, whether that’s with his feet or throwing the ball, so we’re always kind of prepared for whatever may happen. But he’s done a good job."