It’s not uncommon for a freshman quarterback to have large-scale success on a large stage. Look back at just the last five years in which freshman quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston claimed two Heisman trophies and a national championship.
But both Manziel and Winston had already spent a year on their respective campuses and were redshirt freshmen when they reached the summit of the quarterback position.
No true freshman quarterback has had that type of transcendent season since 1985, when Jamelle Holieway quarterbacked the Oklahoma Sooners to a national championship. Yet Alabama’s Jalen Hurts stands on the precipice of joining Holieway in that regard.
That’s not on Hurts’ mind this week, of course, as his sole focus is on how to be effective enough Saturday to lead his offense over Washington in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff in the Peach Bowl.
Should Hurts win and head to Tampa with his teammates, Holieway said he wants to be there in the case that Hurts becomes the first true freshman starting quarterback to win a national championship in 31 years.
“I’m loving the way he runs his team even though he’s a baby,” Holieway said. “It really reminds me of myself because of the team’s accomplishments and how he’s really holding it together and being a good productive true freshman.
“He’s just a baby with all those grown men up there doing what he’s doing and being the leader of his team. It’s really amazing.”
Holieway, a 5-foot-11 option quarterback, took over the Sooners team when the starter, Troy Aikman, was lost for the season with a broken leg. Head coach Barry Switzer was left with no choice but to go with his youngster. It worked out well in the aftermath for both parties as the Holieway ran the table as the starting quarterback, leading the Sooners to a 25-10 win over No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl to capture the national championship.
Holieway predicts Hurts will do the same. He said his team and Alabama’s were sort of built for a freshman quarterback to have success.
Normally teams that are highly-ranked year in and year out aren’t in a position to have to play a true freshman quarterback. He said most teams that play true freshman at quarterback don’t have the team around them to succeed at lifting the trophy at the end of the season.
“The true freshmen that are out here today playing maybe didn’t have the nucleus of other athletes at other positions, especially the offensive line that I had,” Holieway said. “I think we had four upperclassmen on our offensive line. A lot of the seniors were dominant at their positions. We had interchangeable pieces from that.
“That’s what I love about Alabama and what they’re all about because it’s like the next man up. From what I’ve seen, they mimic back when I played because if one man goes down the next man goes in and he’s just as good as the first man it was just a matter of time of him getting on the field and showing he can produce. When you have all those five-star recruits, sooner or later when they get an opportunity they’re going to produce. When you can stockpile your team like that, eventually a lot of them are going to be on the field at one time.
“At Alabama to have all those great players understand their role, that’s like heaven. That’s like the perfect team. Then as a coach for you to develop those players and then get them to buy in to your program or whatever it is that you’re running, I mean, that’s remarkable to me. It’s really remarkable to do it year after year after year to be able to do that.”
Hurts is accustomed to doing things that a freshman hasn’t done in 30-plus years. He was the first true freshman to be named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker did it at Georgia in the early 1980s.
Of course none of this is of Hurts’ concern, that’s not part of “The Process,” and when asked about those sorts of things, his head coach Nick Saban gives an icy glare to the questioner and Hurts just ignores them.
That’s a skill set Hurts has learned this year, at least in learning how to downplay things that aren’t in the moment. Part of that is his newfound celebrity.
Most freshman don’t have students waiting for them outside of class just for the opportunity to meet them. When the team is going out in public, a security guard is assigned to Hurts. He can’t even go to the grocery store without being approached by strangers.
“When I walk around with a hoodie on, some people walk up to me and say: ‘You can’t hide,’” Hurts said. “But I know the hoodie works sometimes, so I’ll continue to pull it off as much as I can.
“Just people coming up to me. Me personally, I’m not the type of guy to just say no — no pictures, no autographs — because that’s disrespectful. You have to treat the fans the best way you can. But we have a security guard and I walk around with him when I know stuff is going to go down. And he said: ‘Look, Jalen I don’t have a problem at all with saying no.’ So I’m like, ‘It’s better coming from you than me.”
Holieway dealt with that instant fame in 1985 but there are some differences he’s thankful for.“Thank God there wasn’t no cellphones,” Holieway said.
In so many ways on and off the field, Hurts’ dad Averion Hurts, a high school football coach, prepared him for this moment. From his stoic demeanor on and off the field to his football acumen, Hurts learned so much from his father. His dad told him his life would change, they just didn’t expect to come this quickly.
“It’s not weird because I know the position that I’m in,” Hurts said. “I’m getting used to this lifestyle and, I mean, my life has been changed forever. I had that conversation with my dad after the A-Day Game. I’m like, ‘Dad, my life has changed.’ This is right after the game. He’s like ‘Just wait until you step on the field.’ He was right.”
Even though he’s sitting at 12-0 as a starter, all things haven’t been smooth sailing. His turnovers have been an issue the second half of the season. This week, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said he doesn’t “think Hurts can beat you throwing.”
Washington players have admitted the defensive game plan is to keep him in the pocket and make him throw the ball.But his offensive coordinator isn’t buying into the theory that Hurts is just the beneficiary of a great team around, although that certainly has been beneficial.
“Does it help that we have a great defense, play great special teams, have really good players around him? Yes it does, but I still think that what he’s done is very, very unique and it doesn’t happen,” Lane Kiffin said. “Look at true freshmen, usually, I mean there’s some in our conference and you watch them play and man, ‘OK, what about next year, he’ll be better next year.’ With this guy you’re saying, hey we can just get better next week.
“I think people were on him after the LSU game and I just brought him in and I said, ‘Jalen, you just went into Tiger Stadium at night in an Alabama-LSU game and won, and really made the one significant play on offense.’ He’s a special player.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.