Here’s a chicken-or-egg question to puzzle over for the next several weeks, until Oklahoma faces a ranked opponent: Was Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts completely underutilized at Alabama, or is head coach Lincoln Riley an unequivocal offensive genius? In Hurts’s debut game for Oklahoma on Saturday, in the Sooners’ season opener against Houston, the senior transfer quarterback set career-high marks with six touchdowns, three on the ground and three through the air on 20-of-23 passing, and 508 yards of total offense. He led his new school to a 49-31 win.
Houston isn’t an especially tough opening foe, to be sure, but this performance was still plenty impressive. Hurts’s numbers from Week 1 are nearly unprecedented—only Johnny Manziel has put up anything like them in any game since 2000—and outstrip any individual performance from either of Oklahoma’s last two superstar quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Hurts looked every bit as good as his numbers in the game, playing fun and almost flawless football. The grad student used his feet both to gain yards for himself and get his receivers open, spearheading an offense that attacked from all directions and probably couldn’t have been stopped even if Houston used 13 defenders.
Hurts had already proven he could succeed in big-time college football—he had only two losses in his first two seasons as Alabama’s starting QB, and without him, the Tide wouldn’t have won the SEC Championship his junior year. But because he was demonstrably worse than the monster of a quarterback who replaced him in the 2018 Championship Game, Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts’s reputation is that of a merely adequate player. Or it might be more accurate to say that he seems like An Alabama Quarterback—one reasonably capable of leading a team to the Playoff if he has a dominant defense carrying most of the load. He worked as a sort of special guest star for the Tide last season, spelling Tua as necessary and otherwise staying out of the way. But on Saturday, on an Oklahoma team that does not have the great defense that Alabama possesses, Hurts showed a level of sustained brilliance that no one had ever seen before.
The ease with which Hurts controlled the game and moved the ball raises some obvious questions, not all of them about him. Can Oklahoma really just slot anyone behind center and make him look like a Heisman Trophy candidate? And should NFL teams start banging down the door to Lincoln Riley’s office? Or had Hurts simply been overlooked this whole time, forced to play below his full potential in a cutthroat program that simply does not focus on producing NFL-level quarterbacks?
The answer, as far as I can tell, lies somewhere in between. Hurts is no charity case for Lincoln Riley—especially when compared to Baker Mayfield, his mobility in particular adds a legitimately game-changing dimension to this offense. But both the sheer weaponry in the air attack at Hurts’ disposal in Oklahoma and the unpredictable way Riley makes use of it gives Hurts a brand-new box of toys to play with. At Bama, Hurts had a go-to security blanket in Calvin Ridley, but no other wideouts caught even 15 passes in 2017. Against Houston on Sunday, Oklahoma’s best returning reciever, CeeDee Lamb, only caught the ball twice for 46 yards; none of Hurts’s other targets had more than three catches. The QB and his system worked expertly in tandem to spread the ball around and keep the Cougars guessing, and Hurts seemed utterly in command.
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky had a solid breakdown of a couple of eye-catching plays that Oklahoma ran in Hurts’s debut. In the video below, the analyst notes how Oklahoma’s play design manipulates defenders out of harm’s way to give Hurts easy decisions, and how Hurts’s threat as a runner makes play-action lethal when executed correctly. (I’m also partial to the first and third plays in the highlights above, where Charleston Rambo ghosts the defense on a screen pass with some pre-snap motion and a play fake from his teammates, and the one in which Hurts creates his own counter run with play-action, a fake screen, and the power of his own two legs.)
What Hurts did to Houston and for Oklahoma is all the more striking when compared to the “before” photo. It’s tough to find a truly comparable game for the one Hurts played against the Cougars, since so many of Hurts’s opponents at Alabama boasted more difficult defenses. But a reasonably fair one to pick might be the Tide’s easy win against Tennessee in 2017. In just over one half of play, until Bama took a 28-0 lead and he left the game, Hurts went 13-of-21 for 198 yards and a touchdown, adding 14 yards on the ground. Here for you to observe is a smattering of plays from that decently solid showing:
Of course it is reductive and probably unfair to boil down a few dozen games of a player’s career into a handful of plays from one insignificant game, but the gist of what you see in the moments above is accurate. When Hurts had protection and an open Calvin Ridley as a starter at Alabama, he got the job done with simple, conservative passes. On the ground, his impressive combination of power and speed would have made him a tough runner to stop even if he was the worst decision-maker in the world. But in his unspectacular last stint as a full-time starter, there was also a jumpy sort of uneasiness to watching Hurts play. He made mistakes and had trouble communicating with his receivers, and as a result didn’t command the kind of respect from the defense that would have allowed him to make big plays.
Hurts certainly got lucky a few times against Houston, but he also looked different—more confident and authoritative, and utterly irreplaceable. Where he’d been a decent cog in Alabama’s machine, Hurts was now the beating heart of his new team. After one week with the Sooners, Hurts sure seems comfortable and trustworthy in the role of the number-one guy, and at the most QB-friendly school in the nation, everything is set up to keep it that way. Hurts has undeniably improved by leaps and bounds as a player since his sophomore season at Alabama, and he’s found perhaps the best possible place to show these changes off to the world. To look at him in his age-19 season and then watch him currently at 21 years old is to see a player who spent his time just outside the spotlight getting smarter, calmer, and more dangerous than he was two years ago. Maybe it’ll be enough for the Sooners to get revenge on Bama this postseason.