If it’s true you should dress for the job you want, not the one you already have, Jalen Hurts would wear a monk’s robe instead of the jersey of Alabama’s starting quarterback. The perpetually stoic sophomore gives the impression that he would rather take a vow of silence than answer questions about his football ability.
Hurts isn’t interested in playing the role of the superstar athlete. He’s his father’s child, living out longtime Texas high school football coach Averion Hurts’ motto: “I ain’t gonna laugh if it isn’t funny. I ain’t gonna dance if there ain’t no music.”
Even his touchdown celebrations aren’t for his own enjoyment. Early on during his freshman season, Hurts said, “I’d just score and go, ‘Uh, here you go, ref,'” and flip him the ball.
But as he led Alabama to an undefeated regular season, he started getting pressure to reveal more of himself. A Crimson Tide alumnus reached out and told him he needed to see “some sauce.”
“You’re a cool dude,” the former player said. “You got the swag. Just show me something. Give the people a little something.”
It wasn’t a new critique. When Hurts played for Averion at Channelview High School in Houston, a rival coach once told his father, “Your son is the real deal, but he’s got to show other kids emotion so they play harder.”
Hurts relented and began the act of brushing off the front of his jersey after rushing touchdowns. Nothing outlandish. Just a quiet show of confidence. He stared straight ahead, wiped himself down and moved along.
“Where did that come from?” Averion asked his son.
“They told me I had to do something,” Hurts replied. “That’s all I could think of.”
Averion laughed and thought of a different conversation he had with Saban about getting Hurts to show his emotions. Ultimately, he had to convince Saban to meet them halfway. “You’re going to have to let him be him,” Averion said.
And that’s someone who’s caught between two truths. Hurts’ numbers — 59 touchdowns and 6,442 total yards the past two seasons — say he’s a superstar. But his actions — or lack thereof — suggest otherwise.
The moment Alabama lost to Clemson in the national championship game last January, doubt crept in. Now, Hurts has gone from the Next Big Thing to the most criticized 24-2 starting quarterback on the planet. The back-and-forth is enough to cause whiplash.
“I’m not one to critique him and I understand offense better than 99.99999 percent of the people watching,” offensive tackle Jonah Williams said.
If Hurts fought back, maybe things would be different. If he’d planted his flag, as it were, maybe there would be more recognition of what he has achieved, rather than what he has not.
Instead, on the eve of a rematch with Clemson in the College Football Playoff at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, we’re left to wonder what, if anything, Hurts will reveal of himself on the game’s biggest stage.
“I have a little swag,” he said. “I just got to show it, I guess.”
Hurts is relaxed as he sits in a small, windowless room inside Alabama’s football facility. He doesn’t drink, he says. He doesn’t like going out much, either. But he wants to be clear: “I ain’t no robot.”
“I just know what I want,” he said, “and do everything I have to do to get it.”
So instead of taking advantage of all the perks that come with being the starting quarterback at Alabama, he retreats into his bubble. To relax, he puts on old-school R&B and cleans his apartment. Lately, he has had Al Green, the band Maze, The Isley Brothers and Luther Vandross on rotation.
“I was listening to Betty Wright yesterday,” he said, pleased with his new find. “I have an old soul.”
He last tweeted in April and he hasn’t posted on Instagram since May. The next controversial statement he makes will be the first one.
His older brother, Averion Jr., was the more outspoken one in the family, constantly butting heads with their father, who coached them both at Channelview. Hurts was more reserved. He listened closely and soaked up his surroundings without the slightest hint of reaction.
“Coach Saban will be telling me something and he’ll be like, ‘I know you think I’m crazy,'” Hurts said. “I’m like, ‘No, Coach, I don’t think you’re crazy. Remember, my dad was my coach and that’s a whole different ballgame.'”
Said Averion: “With him, you can tell him something and you’ll never know if you pissed him off. So Coach Saban had his hands full at first. He’s a great amateur psychologist, but he’s never had a kid like him. He’s never had a quarterback that is so mellow. Sometimes people think he’s acting like he’s cool. He’s just a laid-back dude.”
As Averion explains, it was hard to pry words out of Hurts when he was young. When he got braces, he became self-conscious about the way it caused him to mumble. The braces and the mumble are long gone, but it’s rare to hear him speak above a whisper.
But don’t let Hurts’ subdued nature fool you. He doesn’t miss anything. He gets a kick out of it when people try to covertly take photos of him. “I can tell whether you deny it or not,” he said.
Just the other day, he was cleaning his car outside his dorm when he said he noticed a Jeep drive by. It got all the way down to the end of the street before it stopped suddenly and turned around. When the two students circled back, their windows were down, their jaws were dropped, and Hurts heard them say, “Oh my God, it’s Jalen.”
“Like I’m a myth,” Hurts said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Like I’m not real. Like I suit up on Saturdays.”
There was a twinge of frustration in his voice, having to live in this fishbowl.
“He’s a normal kid,” Averion said. “The hardest part is he can’t be a normal college student.”
It has led to what Averion calls his son’s “TV face.”
“You’ll see him laughing and talking with the guys,” he said, “and then all of a sudden when he knows the camera is on him, he goes straight-faced.”
It’s as if something is eating at him, that cold blank stare he puts on.
His most recent Instagram post is a picture of him leaving the field after the loss to the Tigers, his helmet propped atop his head to reveal that same cold stare. Underneath it, Hurts wrote: “Anything We Go Through Is A Test Of Time. This Is Business, Nothing Personal. It’s Money Time… See Y’all In ’18.”
Offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher believes Hurts wore a chip on his shoulder from the criticism he faced after the loss. Even though he became the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Georgia’s Herschel Walker in 1980, there were doubts about whether Hurts was a complete quarterback.
At SEC media days, South Carolina QB Jake Bentley came to Hurts’ defense. “All that crap about ‘He can’t throw it,’ that’s not true,” he said. “He can spin it.”
Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley said over the summer: “There are some people out there who don’t respect him. They should.”
Hurts, for his part, stayed silent. He told reporters, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Kudos to them.”
Averion would tease his son with lyrics from a rap song: “If you ain’t got no haters, you ain’t poppin.”
Which isn’t to say that Averion is OK with all the criticism. As a parent, he said it’s disappointing to hear people talk about what his son can’t do.
“Here’s what Jalen has been told: These people don’t love you, they just love what you’re doing,” he said. “They don’t care about you because they don’t know you. … 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 come watch you play every game to hope you fail.
“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.”
As the top-rated dual-threat QB prospect in Texas, Hurts could have easily stayed in Big 12 country and run the same Air Raid system he grew up in. It suited him well, having amassed 51 touchdowns in 11 games as a high school senior.
But Hurts wanted a new challenge. He wanted to play at Alabama and be developed into a pro-style quarterback. Although he initially wondered whether he was good enough — Saban and all those championships felt like a “myth,” he said — the phone eventually rang.
“Nick Saban just offered me a scholarship?” he said. “It was like, dang. But then you put your two feet in it and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re normal.'”
Hurts enrolled early in December of 2015 as the Tide were preparing to face Clemson in the national championship game, and his first assignment was to mimic Deshaun Watson for the scout team.
He terrorized Alabama’s No. 1-ranked defense, as future pros such as Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Jonathan Allen struggled to get a hand on the shifty quarterback. During one play, Hurts ran the zone-read, took off and went straight at Ragland at middle linebacker. But instead of pitching the ball off, he faked it.
“I got him with the okie-doke, cut up and scored about 40 yards,” Hurts recalled. “I’m going to work just like that. I’ve been rolling ever since.”
Hurts became the first true freshman ever to start at QB for Saban and led the Tide to an SEC championship and the CFP, culminating in a loss to Clemson in a title-game rematch. But a funny thing happened after his auspicious start in 2016: Hurts wasn’t developed.
“I think we protected him a bit last year,” Saban said over the summer. “It didn’t enhance his development and sometimes later in the year when people played us in a way where we needed to be able to throw the ball, we may not have been efficient as we would have liked to have been. That’s probably our fault as coaches because we protected him, instead of developed him as a young player.”
Late in the season, against stiffer competition, it showed. Defenses pressured Hurts into difficult passing situations, and he struggled to move the ball downfield consistently.
After the departure of Lane Kiffin, new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was brought in to remedy that. The former New England Patriots assistant had learned under Bill Belichick and had future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady on speed dial.
But while Hurts played with deadly efficiency this season, turning the ball over just three times, the offense as a whole was slightly more conservative than it had been the previous season. Alabama focused on running the ball and routinely jumped out to big leads, which meant Hurts wasn’t able to get many snaps in obvious passing situations. His 36 attempts of 20-plus yards through the air ranked 51st among Power 5 QBs, and was about a third of that of West Virginia’s Will Grier (95).
By the time Auburn clamped down on the running game during the final game of the regular season, it was too late. The Tide looked unprepared, with Hurts passing for 112 yards, and they lost 26-14.
Losing the Iron Bowl felt like the end of last season all over again with Hurts taking the blame.
“They can say whatever they want about Jalen, but we know what he does for our program,” tight end Hale Hentges said. “He’s a fearless leader, he’s our guy and he’s led us to many great wins and we’re behind him 100 percent.”
The question now is whether Hurts will be able to put up points against Clemson’s stingy defense in the third installment of their CFP rivalry.
Averion knows his son would love nothing more than to be cut loose and throw it 40 times in a game. But, as he explained, “It’s Alabama and they’re not going to do that.”
But maybe Daboll will. Maybe, against one of the best run defenses in the country, he’ll hand the reins over to his QB.
“I never put a limit on my game,” Hurts said. “There’s no limit to it. I don’t think that. I just try to be the best — whatever that is.”
In the moments after Alabama lost to Clemson in the national championship last January, Hurts stood dutifully in front of his locker, impeccably dressed in a tan suit and red-and-blue tie, and publicly turned the page.
“You never want to be on this end of it, but today we are,” he told reporters. “My sophomore season starts now.”
But he felt it. After he left the locker room that night, he tried to find his father. Averion had scheduled an early flight the next day, so he and his wife had already left for the hotel when Hurts called asking where they were.
“I knew what that meant,” Averion said. “Go see him.”
So they drove over to Alabama’s team hotel and went up to Hurts’ room. His son was quiet, for the most part, but he expected as much. Instead, he spoke and helped walk him through it.
“In that moment, he’s not going to talk,” Averion said. “He didn’t say anything. He sat there and going through those emotions from losing — his first loss — and going through as a player what you could do better.”
Hurts kept the memory of the loss in his pocket, with an image of Clemson hoisting the trophy as the lock screen on his iPhone. When he got a new phone, he changed the image to something more personal. Now, it’s a picture of him walking off the field as orange and purple confetti falls all around him. He has a blank stare across his face as a public relations member ushers him by the elbow toward the locker room.
It’s there to humble himself, Hurts said.
He feels Alabama is better prepared this time around. Personally, he said, he’s better because of the experience of “the things I’ve been through.”
“I’ve done a lot,” he explained, “but I haven’t got the big bambino. I haven’t got the big one.”
Maybe, if he can beat Clemson and get a national championship ring, he’ll have a reason to celebrate.
Then maybe, just maybe, he’ll let the world see a little something of who he really is.