Great Expectations Greet Jalen Hurts at Oklahoma, Along With Familiar Competition

Laken Litman
Sports Illustrated

ARLINGTON, Texas — Even though he wasn’t there, Jalen Hurts was a hot topic at Big 12 media days on Monday.

Hurts, who transferred to Oklahoma in January after three seasons with Alabama, is expected to be the next great quarterback under Lincoln Riley. His predecessors, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, were consecutive Heisman Trophy winners and both went No. 1 in the NFL draft. Now, the popular take heading into the 2019 season is that Hurts will be the new Sooners star.

He very well could be. Among the various remarkable things on his resume, Hurts went 26-2 as a starter with the Crimson Tide and won a national championship. And he will always be remembered as last year’s SEC championship game hero. His former Alabama coaches, teammates and fans are forever grateful and indebted to his program loyalty.

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Now he’s catching fire as a new face in the Big 12. Oklahoma’s leading returning receiver, CeeDee Lamb, who played with both Mayfield and Murray, says his friends back home are always asking what it’s like to play now with potentially three of the best college quarterbacks of all time.

“I’m speechless every time they ask me,” Lamb said. “I mean, Jalen went 26-2, Kyler and Baker won the Heisman and were first picks in the draft. You can’t break it down anymore than that.”

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, whose team hasn’t beat Oklahoma since 2014 (the pre-Riley/Mayfield/Murray era), added that even though he doesn’t know Hurts personally, he has “a lot of respect for the way he handles himself” and has relished the recent challenges OU has presented at quarterback.

“He’s a terrific football player, I don’t think there’s any question about it. We’re looking forward to playing him,” Gundy said of Hurts. “People say, ‘Well that wasn’t any fun.’ We’ve had a chance to play the last two Heisman Trophy winners and compete against the very best in that game at that position. It’s exciting for us to try to prepare against the best.”

But, here’s the thing: For all the excitement and hype surrounding him, Hurts hasn’t actually clinched the starting job yet. He played well in Oklahoma’s spring game—some say he’s developed into an even better passer after serving as Tua Tagovailoa’s backup last season—and Riley has cited his unique big-game experience starting for the Tide in 2016 and 2017. But Hurts is currently battling it out with redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai and true freshman Spencer Rattler, a former five-star recruit who was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2019 class. Maybe this brings back tough memories for Hurts, losing his starting job to Tagovailoa close to this time last year. Or maybe Hurts is unfazed. Regardless, it’s not Riley’s style to anoint someone the automatic starter without earning it.

“What kind of message would I be sending to our entire team if we bring some guy in and name him starter right away?” Riley said, reminding everybody that Murray had to compete with Austin Kendall, who transferred to West Virginia this offseason, in order to win the job. “That wouldn’t be good for the [quarterback] room and certainly not good for the rest of the team with other position battles going on. In a team game, competition is the most important thing there is. I don’t care if Joe Namath walks into our room right now, he’s gotta win the job.”

There’s also the fact that, unlike his predecessors who had more than a year in the system before taking a meaningful snap, Hurts has only been on campus since January and hasn’t fully grasped every intricacy of the Sooners’ offense yet. It’s wrong to assume that Riley can easily insert any talented quarterback into his system seamlessly. This process has “certainly been different,” Riley said, and it will take work. Plus, he’s still learning how to communicate with Hurts, from how he thinks to streamlining vocabulary that might mean one thing at Alabama but another at Oklahoma. But, because of Hurts’s past experiences, Riley said, “it’s not like you’re starting from scratch.”

Oklahoma led the nation last year in points (48.4), total offense (570.3 yards per game) and yards per play (8.4). Alabama, which beat Oklahoma 45-34 in the College Football Playoff, wasn’t far behind. In addition to Murray, the Sooners lost four starting offensive linemen and go-to receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who was a first-round draft pick. But OU returns offensive talents in Lamb, tight end Grant Calcaterra and running backs Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks.

“We don’t plan on the offense dipping,” Riley said.

And if Hurts, who was picked as preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, ultimately wins the job, he’s already ahead on winning over his new teammates.

“Considering the guy is 26-2 and won a natty, yeah, that’s something most of us have never experienced,” Lamb said. “I feel like if he has something to say, we’re all going to buy in. He’s been where we’re trying to go. He’s seen how much work it takes to get there.

“The man has all the right tools to be great.”

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