Now as a Sooner, Jalen Hurts makes another defining stop in Atlanta

In his one and only season in Norman, Jalen Hurts has looked quite comfortable in Oklahoma's shade of crimson. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
In his one and only season in Norman, Jalen Hurts has looked quite comfortable in Oklahoma's shade of crimson. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Credit: Brett Deering

Credit: Brett Deering

No player – and that includes such homebodies as Matt Ryan and Josef Martinez – has had a more eventful relationship with Mercedes-Benz Stadium than that frequent visitor, quarterback Jalen Hurts.

He may be only a tourist to these parts, a big-game conventioneer, but for Hurts, Atlanta and the Benz make up the handy CliffsNotes for a college career that he rightly and somewhat proudly describes as “unprecedented.” Everything you need to know about a journey that has spanned two legendary programs can be gleaned right here, should you not have the time to read the book.

It was beneath Arthur Blank’s petaled roof that Hurts was first supplanted as Alabama’s starter, lifted at the half of the College Football Playoff Championship game at the close of the 2017 season, the Crimson Tide trailing Georgia 13-0. Hurts was two-year starter with a 26-2 record, a conduit to a pair of national title games. But this game was Tua Tagovailoa’s to win in overtime, and was the beginning of a tectonic shift in Tuscaloosa.

Some 327 days later, it was the benched Hurts stepping in for an injured Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship game – again at the Benz and again against Georgia – to lead a comeback. Throwing for one score, running for another, he was the instrument of a 35-28 Bama victory. What cosmic symmetry: Where he had lost his place in the football food chain, Hurts regained it, saving the team that had demoted him and leaving Alabama with one last victorious vision before moving on.

On Saturday, he is back in our midst, leading No. 4 Oklahoma against top-seeded LSU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl playoff semifinal. Hurts is one of three transfer quarterbacks in this playoff, including the man he faces Saturday, the same one who finished one important spot ahead of him in the Heisman Trophy voting, Joe Burrow.

The transfers – don’t forget Ohio State’s Justin Fields – are a big theme to the playoff this season. But one factor separates Hurts from the rest: “I left because I was used to playing and I wasn’t playing, other guys left because they weren’t playing,” he summed up in his Tuesday Peach Bowl media session.

There is not a more apt building than Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Hurts to put his latest incarnation on display. Other people may go to a sweat lodge or an ashram to discover their true selves. Hurts visits the big sports palace on Northside Drive.

Memories good and bad live there for him – although he has never lost there. Above all else, though, he says, “What stands out the most is just having another opportunity to be here and have the opportunity to take advantage of it. It’s all unprecedented, nobody can say they experienced the things I’ve experienced.” So said the only player to lead two different programs to the College Football Playoff.

There’s that word – unprecedented – that he so often leans on when talking about being the freshman sensation at Alabama who would lose his job at the end of the following season, stick it out quietly and resolutely for one more season at Bama and then parachute into Oklahoma, the softest possible landing spot for a displaced quarterback.

“Nobody else has gone 26-2 and won all these games and had to leave, it’s never happened before,” he said.

There is an undercurrent of defiant satisfaction to Hurts, and the way he endured at Alabama and then with his last bullet of eligibility, returned Oklahoma to the playoff. Although you can’t always read that by his expression. When Hurts is doing these media obligations, his is a face that belongs at the final table of the World Series of Poker.

“I acknowledge everything I’ve been through, and I wouldn’t change anything for the world. The reality is that it’s life, and it’s how you respond to life,” he said. “I just responded the way I have and coincidentally it has been unprecedented in that none of it has happened before.”

If Hurts ever writes the primer on how to handle the kind of extremes he has lived in the service to college football, he’ll likely include this quote from Tuesday somewhere in the early pages:

“You either do the right thing or the wrong thing. Everybody has to have values in life and live by those values and be consistent in them and demand of yourself that you handle your business the right way.

“Change is always hard to overcome, but you have to embrace it.”

The address changed for Hurts, not the game. On Saturday, LSU confronts the same diverse package of skills as did Georgia during that brief but spectacular SEC Championship game appearance a season ago.

This season Hurts led the Big 12 in passing efficiency (throwing for 3,634 yards, 32 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and was second in rushing (1,255 yards, 18 touchdowns). He caught only two passes, though. Finally, a modest number.

The LSU scouting effort has included some segments of social media, those that emphasize Hurts’ strength as a runner.

“He has videos of him squatting nearly 600 pounds, that’s so unusual for a quarterback,” LSU linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “It is going to take gang-tackling, you can’t leave anyone alone to tackle him. It’s going to be a unique task but we’re going to be up for it.

“He can throw the ball, but when you look at his rushing numbers, as a quarterback who leads the team in rushing, almost leads the conference, that’s a unique factor. That’s crazy.”

Saturday will be the seventh college playoff game that Hurts has dressed for, his fifth as a starter. Although he doesn’t play up the experience factor nearly as much as he might.

“Everybody here has had the opportunity to play in big games in big venues. Oklahoma is not foreign to that. It’s all about executing and preparing well and going out there and doing a good job.”

And then he closes with what really is the mantra of his collegiate life: “It’s all about how you respond.”

Not likely that Saturday can present Hurts with anything that’s new to him. But if such a quirky twist exists, it will find him in this stadium.