NORMAN — Bad news for Oklahoma’s upcoming opponents: Jalen Hurts is evolving as a quarterback.
Like some hostile hybrid, part alien species, part sentient robot, Hurts is not only bent on an all-out takeover — he’s becoming self-aware.
His display against Texas Tech on Saturday at Owen Field was evidence that he’s no longer just the best football player on the field, but he’s developing a higher level of quarterbacking cognizance. His understanding and grasp of Lincoln Riley’s offense is reaching levels of excellence unprecedented in Norman — or anywhere.
Think about it this way: on a sliding scale from Peyton Manning (mental preparation and ultimate comfort within the offense) to Cam Newton (supreme confidence and physical ability), Hurts has never lacked the latter, but now he’s getting closer to the former.
Hurts has always been an outstanding football player. He’s as good a leader as there’s been in college football. His character and toughness and fortitude are off the charts.
“Intangibles are high up there on my list, certainly,” Riley said. “I don’t think you can replace that. I don’t think you can get around that. Your quarterback’s got to have that. The pulse of the team, so much of that comes from the quarterback. It just does. That’s the way this sport works. So I think whatever you want the personality of your team to be, you better look at that guy pretty early because it’s going to tell you a lot.”
Now, from the tapestry of Hurts’ often brilliant, sometimes tormented college football past, Riley is bringing out the subtle nuances of sophisticated quarterback play.
“Definitely getting better,” Riley said of Hurts’ growing comfort with making calls and decisions at the line of scrimmage. “… Just more ownership of it. I think he’s starting to feel maybe a little more in charge, more in command of it. Being more comfortable, communicating better. All those things make your job easier, so I think it’s becoming a little more natural for him.”
Several times on Saturday, when Hurts came to the sideline — after an incompletion, after an unsuccessful third-down, after his first interception in an OU uniform — he went straight to Riley. Eyes and ears wide open, head nodding, Hurts drank in the words and gestures of his coach.
“It’s still a fight every week to get him better and get him ready,” Riley said, “but he’s certainly come a long way. And as far as he’s come from Day 1 to now, he needs to make a similar jump from now to the end of the season.”
Riley said he spent the Sooners’ open date sort of force feeding Hurts the finer points of quarterbacking his offense.
“We pushed him hard on the bye week — all our players,” Riley said. “Two weeks to work with ‘em after the UCLA game. Reps, understanding it, trusting it more, so it’s all part of the progression. But he’s doing a nice job.”
Hurts’ statistics are historic, better than Jason White or Sam Bradford or Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray. But the impressive part of his performance against the Red Raiders was his patience in the pocket, his ability to progress through his reads until he found an open receiver, his mental acuity to throw receivers open.
Hurts somehow has a passer efficiency rating of 245 or better in all four of his games as a Sooner. In college football history — stats only go back to 1996, but good luck finding someone doing it before that — no quarterback has ever done that twice in a season. Hurts is 4-for-4. His nation-leading efficiency rating of 249.9 is 24 points higher than second-place Joe Burrow of LSU (225.6).
Through four games, Hurts has a better completion percentage (.776), averages more yards per attempt (15.2), a higher efficiency rating (249.9), has more total yards (1,738), more rushing yards (110.8), more rushing touchdowns (five) and more total TDs (17) than any of OU’s four Heisman-winning QBs during their Heisman seasons.
He leads the nation in yards per completion (19.6), ranks second in total offense (434.5 per game) and yards per carry (9.4) and is third in completion percentage and fifth in points-responsibility per game (25.5).
Imagine how Tim Tebow or Vince Young might have progressed in their careers if they’d gotten the kind of coaching Hurts is getting now. Their intangibles and natural ability were otherworldly, enough to produce a Heisman, a runner-up and three national championships. But their evolution as quarterbacks ultimately hit a ceiling.
There’s no guarantee Hurts will break through any such ceiling. But his advances are now undeniable.
Remember, in three years at Alabama, Hurts had four different offensive coordinators and four different quarterback coaches. Riley represents his fifth of each, but there is no doubt that Hurts’ tutoring has reached a new level.
“It’s different,” Hurts said. “When you look at the experiences that I had with those coaches, they all had a different approach. I think coach Riley has another unique approach that’s successful. It all comes down to executing.”
What did Riley see in Hurts to want him at Oklahoma?
“His experience, his handling adversity, all the intangibles that you figured a guy like that would bring, that was no doubt a factor,” Riley said, “but there’s a lot of guys that would bring a lot of intangibles over here that would have no chance in hell of playing quarterback for us.
“You had to see the skills, too, and the skills — I felt watching him that all the skills were there to be a really, really good player, and there was really good intangibles there. I kind of looked at it the other way. I didn’t say, ‘Well, what can he not do?’ I looked and said, ‘Why could he not work here?’ I didn’t have a very good reason, so I figured that was a pretty good indicator.”
Hurts would never admit that he’s surprised himself at OU, but he certainly has surprised any detractors who doubted he could be a polished quarterback in Riley’s offense.
“It’s a different approach,” Hurts said. “The philosophy is different. It’s just different types of players being used in very productive ways.”
Through four games (he has yet to finish one), Hurts is 66-of-85 for 1,295 yards with 12 touchdowns and one interception. After Hurts went 17-of-24 for 415 yards with three touchdowns in the Sooners’ Big 12 opener, Riley seemed impressed with what the off-week cram sessions produced.
“He’s seeing the field pretty well,” Riley said. “He’s understanding how we want to attack people. And he’s been able to process it well early. He’s a little more confident. … Today, a little bit more, I think, more steady, and then made a couple of the off-script plays like he has been making, too.”
Riley said Monday that, with a day to review the Texas Tech video and discuss it with Hurts, his conclusions were similar to what he thought he saw Saturday.
“There were some things that were better, there were some things that have got to continue to get better,” Riley said. “Each week kind of exposes — it shows you new and exciting things, but every challenge kind of exposes different things that you’re gonna have to continue to improve on throughout the year. It’s kind of ever-evolving.
“There were some things that happened this game that exposed a few areas that Jalen’s gotta work on — and that he’s gotta get coached better on. That’s, I would say, pretty normal. There’s a lot to like, but his focus, (and) my focus coaching him right now, and the rest of our quarterbacks, is the steps we’re gonna have to continue to take as these new challenges come up.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.