NORMAN — Jalen Hurts is on the clock.
There’s an urgency now, five months left in his college football career. There’s an intensity that burns inside Hurts — one that has always smoldered, sure, but now glows white-hot.
Of course, Oklahoma’s recent quarterbacks had a similar fire that propelled them and their teammates and the Sooners to new heights. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray weren’t just gifted football players. Like Hurts, they had that inner tempest — sometimes roiling, but mostly surging them forward.
“They all have that winning mentality. They have that edge with them,” said Sooner tight end Grant Calcaterra. “But I would say (Hurts) brings a little bit different intensity than those two guys. I mean, they’re intense, but I think Jalen is a guy that likes to work, likes to grind, likes to work hard in everything he does. So that might be a little bit different.”
It’s why Hurts not only won the starting job at Alabama as a true freshman — Nick Saban’s first — but thrived. Only a few months out of high school, Hurts was voted the best offensive player in the Southeastern Conference.
Compare that to the true freshman seasons of Mayfield and Murray. Mayfield, too, won the starting job at Texas Tech, but then couldn’t get it back after an injury. Murray started a handful of games for Texas A&M. Neither won very much, and both became disgruntled with their situation and transferred to OU.
Hurts, meanwhile, took his team to a 12-0 regular season, an SEC championship and an appearance in the national championship game, and scored the Tide’s go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes before Clemson’s final rally.
As a true freshman.
Hurts has a quality that most quarterbacks — even a few of the great ones — simply do not have. And this summer, when it was on the players to put in extra work on their own time, Hurts’ new teammates haven’t just seen it — they lived it.
“Been a constant grind all summer,” said wideout CeeDee Lamb. “As for Jalen’s aspect, I feel like he’s trying to better himself, silence all critics and be the best person he can be.”
“I came in here with the intention of trying to be the best version of myself and earning the respect of my teammates,” Hurts said. “I think they’ve accepted me. They look at me as their leader.
“It’s just a well-respected relationship between me and those guys. I try to go out there and set the right example. I try to lead the right way. Can’t be a hypocrite. I have to set the right example if I’m going to lead those guys and try and demand excellence out of them. So, just try to take the right steps and attack every day with them.”
Whenever a new quarterback arrives, the standard August storyline is how that QB orchestrated summer throwing sessions. It’s important just to get as many reps as possible before the season starts, but it’s also big in building chemistry, a line of communication and a bond of trust.
But it seems Hurts has gone out of his way to build that rapport with his new receiver corps.
“I don’t think it’s something that we force,” he said. “I’m gonna be me. I’m not gonna change. But … Definitely a lot of late nights, early mornings.”
Said Calcaterra, “On Wednesdays, we’d watch film in the summer. At night, a lot of times we’d catch balls or run routes late at night, or 7-on-7. … We sometimes throw in the Everest or throw on the practice fields outside the stadium. Yeah, we always have access to those buildings, so we try to use them as much as we can.”
After the Sooners’ spring game, his teammates came away impressed with Hurts’ football skills. They also noticed something else.
“Yeah, he’s got some swagger to him,” said tackle Erik Swenson. “The way he walks, the way he calls plays, he’s definitely got that to him.
“He definitely walks in with leadership credibility, I’d say, 100 percent. Guys just kind of (gravitate) to what he has to say and it’s kind of impressive, honestly. The magnitude of his leadership skills, that he can just come in, maybe meet the guys for less than 20 minutes and they’re already listening to him. It’s pretty impressive, to be honest with you.”
Even the defense took notice.
“He’s a true leader,” defensive back Justin Broiles said in the spring. “When he steps in the room, you know Jalen Hurts is in the room. … Just how he carries himself. The knowledge and experience he brings, there’s a whole bunch that he can bring to this team.”
“I’m stronger, I’m wiser, much more mature,” Hurts said Friday at OU Media Day. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve kind of always been a stoic guy — don’t let much get to me. But I think taking those things, those learning experiences, as opportunities to learn and get better. … We have a lot of opportunities here at Oklahoma to do great things as a team. We just want to take it all in and attack it the right way and use it to our advantage.”
— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) February 14, 2019
One example of that is the viral video from last winter of Hurts squatting 570 pounds. He carefully descends, measured, unsure. He somehow gets to the bottom, then begins an agonizingly slow ascent. It looks like he’s not going to make it. His face contorts, his eyes squint, his veins strain. He starts to quake. By now, it’s clearly not happening. That’s too much weight for a quarterback — any quarterback. But then Hurts finds his inner animal, that raw, visceral power into which homo sapiens almost never taps, and his knees slowly straighten. His teammates explode in celebration. He sets the weight with an guttural roar, then turns around and jumps into their arms.
It’s likely that 99.8 percent of the human population has never tried that hard at anything in their lives. But to Hurts, it was just another day at work, another goal checked off the to-do list.
“They say different animal, same beast,” Hurts said Friday. “I’m on a different team with the same goals.”
“There’s definitely some urgency,” Calcaterra said. “Coming in and having six months under your belt before the first game, it’s gotta be pretty tough to get everything together. But it’s been intense. We’ve been moving fast, working hard. So I think he’ll be ready. If he’s the 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.