TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Admitting that Alabama “protected” starting quarterback Jalen Hurts last season, head coach Nick Saban might have opened the biggest what-if question surrounding the Crimson Tide.
During a radio interview on The Opening Drive on Thursday, the head coach said that the Tide simplified its offense last season, a decision that made things easier on Hurts during his freshman year but one that might have also have stunted his growth.
“Sometimes later in the year when people played us in a way that we needed to be able to throw the ball, we may not have been as efficient as we would have liked to have been,” Saban said during the interview. “That was probably our fault as coaches because we protected him instead of developing him as a young player. The goal this spring, and certainly before next season, is that we can create more balance by being a better passing team to go along with what we’re able to do with our feet as a quarterback. As well as how that creates balance for our overall offense and utilizes some of the other skill players that we have which we didn’t always take advantage of last year.”
Later in the day, Saban addressed the topic again, stating Alabama tried to eliminate much of its drop-back passes last season in order to allow Hurts to better utilize his abilities. Saban explained that he was “in agreement” with the decision as most young quarterbacks struggle to become drop-back passers early on.
Ultimately, the plan was to get Hurts the ball in a way he was most comfortable. But was it the right one?
“Is that a bad thing? We won 14 games that way,” Saban said. “If we throw the ball a little bit better in the last game maybe it would have been different. But if we had played better defense the last three times they had the ball maybe that would have been different, too.
“So there’s a lot of things you can talk about that contributed to it. Would we do it the same way again? There were times when we probably could have tried to develop that a little bit more and maybe in game situations put him in those situations more so that it might have benefitted him down the road. But that’s a big assumption that anyone could make because no one knows if that would be true or not.”
Hurts was named SEC Player of the Year last season after passing for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Although, a big portion of his success came on the ground, where he rushed for 954 yards and a team-high 13 touchdowns.
While Hurts’ performance through the air was inconsistent much of the season, it ended on a sour note. Over his final three games, he completed a combined 31 of 65 passes (48 percent) for 326 yards and two touchdowns.
All three of those games came against top 15 pass defenses in Florida (No. 2), Washington (No. 15) and Clemson (No. 14). That begs the question, could Hurts have performed better if he was more accustomed to a more complex role as a passer?
Right now, the rising sophomore doesn’t seem too concerned with the past.
“Everything happens for a reason. I’m not going to say what I could’ve done or what I couldn’t have done. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s a new year now.”
This spring, Hurts said the offense has entered practice each day with the motto of improving. By all accounts, the Channelview, Texas, native has done that, drawing rave reviews from both Saban and teammates.
Hurts credits the improvement to a growth in maturity and said the game has “slowed down” for him as a passer. That includes a comfortability with drop-back passes as well.
“Yeah, I think with the maturity part of it and experience, you’re going to naturally be more comfortable with everything you do,” Hurts said. “Whether it’s running the ball on offense as a running back, throwing the ball as a quarterback, being a safety like Minkah (Fitzpatrick) is, whatever it is, you’re going to naturally progress.”
While Saban admitted much of Alabama’s playbook will remain “basic” for A-Day, the scrimmage should provide a glimpse into Hurts’ maturity as a passer. Whether or not that growth could have come sooner is now irrelevant.
Alabama is focused on next season, where it plans to roll out a more advanced offense. That includes a more advanced Jalen Hurts at quarterback.
“The older you get in anything, you see things differently,” Hurts said. “Like I said, I think that comes with experience and me slowing down. We worked on the footwork part and the progression part and just getting into details on what we need to do to execute the play that's called. Little things tie together and, obviously, little things can be big things. But we have to do those little things right."