On January 2, after being on campus for only three hours—he hadn't even finished moving into his dorm room yet—Hurts was already playing the role of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on the scout team. The Tide were facing the Tigers in the national title game in nine days, and throughout Hurts' first practice, according to several players, he ran around the field like his shoes were on fire, consistently leaving defenders lunging at nothing but air. The performance charged the imaginations of many Alabama veterans, who wondered aloud—Daaaaamn!—what the future might hold for this kid.
"I couldn't believe how calm and relaxed he was in that first practice," says defensive end Jonathan Allen. "He was making guys miss left and right. He was the real deal."
Yet Hurts' actual college playing career had an inauspicious beginning: He fumbled his first snap in the 2016 opener against USC and the Trojans recovered. But as soon as he reached the sideline, he was so stone-faced that a few Alabama players wondered if the freshman even had a pulse.
"It was like he forgot about the fumble a second after it happened," Saban says. Hurts went on to throw two touchdowns and run for two more as the Tide rolled, 52-6.
Jalen Hurts scrambles out of the pocket during a game against USC on September 3, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Images)
Hurts had reason to be flustered again two weeks later when his true freshman right tackle blew an assignment. An Ole Miss defensive end annihilated Hurts, sacking him and causing a fumble the Rebels ran back for a touchdown. The score put Alabama down 24-3.
How did Hurts respond? He never flinched and wound up throwing for 158 yards and running for 146 more. The Tide won again, 48-43.
Last Saturday in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, Hurts threw two interceptions in the first half, when one receiver ran the wrong way and then two receivers collided. With Alabama's perfect season hanging in the balance, he zigged and zagged for one four-yard touchdown run and then threw a perfect pass for one more. Hurts hasn't lost yet as a college quarterback: Tide 30, Tigers 12.
"I constantly have to remind myself," says former Cleveland Browns general manager and current Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage, "that we're watching an 18-year-old true freshman do all of this."
So who is Jalen Hurts, really? To find the answer, you must travel deep down in oil country, to a dusty town in Texas, where he blossomed into the quarterback Saban now calls "the most mature young person" he's ever known.
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Jalen Hurts reacts after a 33-14 win over Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Getty Images)
He used to be here, under the amber of the Friday night lights on this field just east of Houston. One year ago, Jalen Hurts led Channelview High to its first postseason in 22 years, and tonight, the memory of a quarterback unlike any other in school history still haunts the place.
It's homecoming at Channelview, and a mustachioed police officer is standing near the stadium entrance. He eyes the swelling crowd suspiciously and says he never talks to reporters, but he'll suspend his own rule for a story on the young man he wouldn't mind his own daughter marrying.
"This is Texas now, and if someone around here screws up, you will get hammered," the officer says. "I've known Jalen his entire life and I'm telling you, the kid is almost too good to be true. Never once did I ever hear of him not doing the right thing. He never got in any type of trouble. He's respectful, he works hard and he was a leader even when he was young. Ask anyone and they'll tell you the same thing."
John Moore, the Channelview baseball coach, is lugging a bag of bats and balls near the 8,000-capacity stadium. Moore remembers when Jalen was 10 years old and standing on the sidelines of his older brother's football games. Little Jalen would throw a regulation-sized ball over and over again as his father, Averion Hurts, who has been the head football coach at Channelview since 2006, looked on from a field nearby.
Even then, this was a boy who could spin a perfect spiral.
"I constantly have to remind myself that we're watching an 18-year-old true freshman do all of this."
— PHIL SAVAGE, ALABAMA RADIO ANALYST
"You could tell Jalen was going to be a special football player," Moore says. "Coach Hurts was always developing his sons and teaching them the game. That's why they both became such smart quarterbacks. They've been studying the game almost their whole lives."
One of Jalen's favorite activities as a child was playing imaginary football in the front yard. Alone and with a ball in his hands, Jalen would juke the family dog and sprint past trees, all the while spinning and eluding invisible defenders. He wanted to be like his big brother, Averion Jr., who is four years older and was Channelview's starting quarterback for two seasons.
(This fall, Averion Hurts Jr. was the starting signal-caller at Texas Southern. As a senior, he threw for 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 203 yards and three touchdowns.)
"Jalen looked up to his brother, and he wanted to become the best quarterback he possibly could be," says Malcolm Lockett, a journalism teacher at Channelview. "He was as determined as anyone I've ever seen to accomplish that goal."
So he began most mornings in high school by lifting weights with his father around 6 a.m. in Channelview's cramped weight room. Jalen often would lift again in the afternoon. And the results were staggering: At a powerlifting meet in the spring of 2015, he dead-lifted 585 pounds, squatted 570 and benched 275 more. Two springs ago during physical testing at Alabama, it should be noted, nobody on the Tide other than the offensive and defensive linemen squatted more than 555. Jalen was topping that at 16.
In track, he became a district champion at the shot put, an event usually dominated by future heavyweight college wrestlers, not by someone who is currently 6'2", 209 pounds. Oh, and he ran the 200 meters and the 4x200-meter relay, too.
Yet Jalen never acted like his accomplishments were extraordinary. This is the result, those in Channelview say, of being the son of a strong-willed coach who views humility as a kind of 11th commandment.
"Jalen never talked about himself and really just tried to keep to himself most of the time," says Francisco Castaneda, now a sophomore at Channelview. "I played on the freshman football team last year and it was clear to all of us that Jalen outworked everyone. He was our best player and our hardest worker."
Hailey Walker (left), co-captain of the Channelview cheerleading squad, and Martin Partida, a tuba player in Channelview's marching band. (Courtesy photos)
"There is only one person I really look up to in my life, and that's Jalen," says Martin Partida, a junior at Channelview who plays tuba in the school's marching band. Partida is sitting in the top row of the bleachers watching the first quarter of the homecoming action between Channelview and Sterling High from Baytown, Texas. His face lights up as he discusses his idol.
"Jalen would help me in the weight room and encourage me, getting me to do things I never thought were possible," Partida says.
The Jalen Hurts fan club also includes members of the Channelview cheerleading squad. Hailey Walker, a co-captain, is preparing for her halftime routine—Go Falcons!—when she considers last year's starting quarterback.
"The thing about Jalen is that he remembers everything about you after he meets you just once," she says. "He's really smart and the girls really liked him. We loved his hair. It's just…wild."
Lockett describes Hurts, who was a National Honor Society student, as having "an old soul." During his senior year, Hurts had a free period during the school day. So would he leave campus and grab a bite to eat? Head home for a power nap?
"No, he usually just hung out with a few of us teachers," Lockett says. "We'd talk about anything that wasn't football-related. He has such an inquisitive mind. He's still a kid who likes to have fun—he loves to dance—but he's unbelievably mature. Football to him is not a social club; it's business. That's why I think he's been such a good fit at Alabama and playing for Nick Saban."
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There they were, the father and son sitting side-by-side in their West Virginia living room. Together they would watch hours of eight-millimeter film of the son's high school games. The father critiqued and instructed as the son listened intently, the X's and O's flowing from the coach's mind.
These one-on-one tutorials, which often lasted deep into the night as the pair hunkered down in front of the flickering black-and-white images, would transform the son into one of the top high school players in all of West Virginia. It was the late 1960s, and he was nowhere near the most athletic or the quickest, but this quarterback's football IQ was unmatched.
That's because Nick Saban, the former starting quarterback at Monongah High in West Virginia, is the son of a coach, too. His father, known as Big Nick, coached the Idamay Black Diamonds in their local Pop Warner league. Big Nick pushed his players hard—he always announced the start time for practice but never the ending time—and was a perfectionist. If his only son threw a touchdown pass, Big Nick always had a complaint: The ball didn't travel in a tight enough spiral, or he had failed to look off the safety before unleashing the pass. His chief concern was for his son to maximize his potential. Many of the simple phrases the father repeatedly counseled—Invest your time, don't spend it!—remain in the son's repertoire today.