NORMAN — Jalen Hurts had a lot of doubters after his performance on Sunday night in Oklahoma’s season-opening victory over Houston.
Oh, not about his football abilities. He killed that. Crushed it. Transferring from Alabama and learning Lincoln Riley’s offense and working behind a rebuilt offensive line and integrating into the team — that was the easy part for Hurts.
So much so that on Tuesday, he was named Big 12 Conference player of the week — in his very first week in the Big 12 Conference.
No, nobody questions Hurts’ quarterback skills — or they shouldn’t anymore. Not after a record-setting debut in which he racked up 508 yards total offense, six touchdowns and 176 rushing yards.
Hurts’ performance in No. 4-ranked OU’s 49-31 victory was the most prolific day of Hurts’ career, as well as one of the biggest statistical days by a Sooner QB ever.
The part that had people doubting Hurts was the postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
Try and she might, the spritely Rowe could not get Hurts to express satisfaction with his OU debut, his statistical accomplishments, or much else.
“Can you be somewhat happy?” she asked.
“I gotta go talk to my boys,” Hurts replied. “We gotta get right. We gotta get better. We gotta take more steps.”
Hurts has always been very buttoned-down and businesslike while in the spotlight. But he seems to have tightened that wrench a few turns since arriving in Norman.
So let’s leave it to OU coach Lincoln Riley to paint the picture. Hurts is famously guarded with the media, OK, fine. But is he like that with his teammates? With his coaches? Does he let loose in meetings? Or in practice? Does he reveal an entirely different personality when he’s away from the cameras and the microphones?
“I think compared to most players, he’s a pretty serious guy,” Riley confirmed. “But there is a different side to him, certainly, that you guys don’t get to see — like most of these players. No, he can certainly loosen up, laughs and jokes and has fun. There’s certainly that side to him as well. But as you can see, he’s about business. That’s certainly his mentality. It’s not that he can’t loosen up, smile and have fun because he can. He’s very driven. He’s a very focused guy.”
As ESPN’s best sideline reporter, Rowe has endeared herself to a generation of tight-lipped athletes and coaches. She gets almost everyone to open up eventually.
But even with Rowe, Hurts — like some ancient, cautious fish who remains underwater through wisdom and temperament — would not take the bait. Any bait.
“We played good football at times, but it was not consistent enough.”
“Sloppy play. Really, trusting it and just executing better.”
“Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes in this game and take that next step next week.”
“Gotta do better man, I’m telling you. I’m telling you.”
Those were his other sideline replies on Sunday night.
And on Tuesday, attending the Sooners’ weekly press conference with his own personal entries safely logged in the OU record book and a rabid fan base even more firmly behind their one-year savior, Hurts still wasn’t nibbling.
“I find the satisfaction and enjoy it all when it’s all said and done,” Hurts said. “I don’t know when it will be all said and done. I’m focused on South Dakota.”
That’s the Sooners’ opponent this week, an FCS team from Vermillion that went 4-7 last year, plays in the vaunted Missouri Valley Conference, lost 31-17 to FCS No. 25 Montana last week and will earn $575,000 for their trouble.
South Dakota or Texas, Hurts will not change his approach.
“We’re gonna treat every game the same,” he said. “We’ll let y’all talk about the ‘rat poison’ of it. We’re gonna focus on what we need to focus on and try to get better each week and fix our mistakes from last week.”
Clearly, Nick Saban was a significant influence on him.
After Hurts’ record-setting debut, what was his Monday’s film session with Riley like?
“We watched film and went over it,” Hurts said.
Uh, Lincoln? A little help here?
“Pretty normal,” Riley said, “kinda like it was after any practice in fall camp or spring. Not making too much or too little about anything.
“That’s the one good thing about him: he has pretty good perspective. He’s not like the rest of the world who is going to either drown you or crown you after the first game. He knows there’s a long ways to go here. There’s a lot to learn from (and he’s) excited to learn from it. Excited about some of the things we did well and really focused on things we need to do better.”
Rowe’s persistence paid off, eventually. She called it a “baby smile” as Hurts finally did relent at the end of the interview.
“As you can see, he’s about business,” Riley said. “That’s certainly his mentality. It’s not that he can’t loosen up, smile and have fun because he can. He’s very driven. He’s a very focused guy.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. 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 also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.