The Jalen Hurts Journey: Coffee, Adversity, and Leadership

The Jalen Hurts story is every bit as compelling as a tale of a late-round quarterback on the cusp of greatness. He did it by becoming coffee.

The Jalen Hurts story is every bit as compelling as the stories of late-round or undrafted quarterbacks on the cusp of greatness. While his draft selection as a second-round pick doesn’t seem like the kind of adversity that a player like Brock Purdy or Tom Brady fought through to get to where they are, his college story and the natural leadership he seems to radiate carries a narrative weight of their own well worth appreciating.

After all, one of the two quarterbacks starting Super Bowl LVII was a demoted college quarterback who had to transfer to see playing time. Before his transfer, there was a discussion over whether or not he’d be a better running back than quarterback at the NFL level. Now, he’s fresh off of a season where he was part of the MVP conversation. At quarterback.

And he did it by being a coffee bean.

Jalen Hurts Was a Leader as Soon as He Stepped On Campus

At Alabama, Hurts was a departure from the style of quarterbacks that preceded him – players like Greg McElroy, John Parker Wilson, Jake Coker, and A.J. McCarron were pocket passers first and rarely scrambled. Though Blake Sims offered some glimpse into what kind of playing style might be worth with a player like Hurts, it was a departure from an offense that produced stable, often conservative, passing games without much additional running.

That was no problem for Nick Saban, who held a competition between Hurts and Blake Barnett for the starting job and initially gave the job to Barnett before benching him for Hurts – who was the first true freshman to start at quarterback in Alabama in 32 years.

It was an incredible freshman season, and he threw for 2,780 yards while rushing for 954 more, adding 13 touchdowns on the ground to his 23 passing touchdown total. He broke Blake Sims’ record for most total touchdowns, and he was the first Saban-coached quarterback to rush for more than 11 scores in a season.

He finished 12-0 and was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, earning additional accolades from almost every college football publication in the country. The season concluded with a National Championship game against Clemson that finished in a tense 35-31 loss.

The Hurts story was going to be about a prodigy who stepped onto campus already owning the job and growing from there to become one of the best college quarterbacks of all time at an institution that didn’t even need that level of talent from one player in order to succeed.

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He was benched in front of a national audience in the biggest game of the season the very next year. And he didn’t get his job back for his junior season.

Both Hurts and the quarterback who replaced him, Tua Tagovailoa, played with extraordinary talent, and it was hard to force Hurts out of the position outright – something that led to a very public outburst from Saban as ESPN’s Maria Taylor asked for clarity on the quarterback situation.

“I still like both guys. I think both guys are good players, I think both guys can help our team,” Saban said. “Alright, so why do you continue to try and get me to say something that doesn’t respect one of them? I’m not going to, so quit asking.”

This tense moment was borne not of the delicate need to balance a locker room or a desire never to publicly throw a player under the bus. Saban is more than happy to criticize his team or name starters. But Saban’s extraordinary respect for Hurts became obvious in front of a national audience as that clip made the rounds.

Before Saban made Hurts the starting quarterback for Alabama as a freshman, he said that there was something irreplaceable with experience and maturity that makes it difficult to move away from the veterans on the roster, especially at the quarterback position.

When offensive tackle Cam Robinson and receiver ArDarius Stewart had an opportunity to talk to Saban about the quarterback competition, they asked him to seriously consider the true freshman. In his first play for the Crimson Tide, Hurts fumbled the snap.

After that, he led the team to a 52-6 win over the USC Trojans.

His response to adversity in the moment impressed coaches and teammates, but the kind of long-term adversity that he would see in his third year with the program might have said more about his ability to lead than anything else he could have done.

After the game, when Saban met with Hurts to go over the game film, he found that Hurts had already watched the film and had broken it down before the meeting, a surprise for Saban.

After losing the job to Tagovailoa, Hurts made a number of public statements when asked on the sideline or during the practice week affirming his support for the new starter as he sat on the bench. That’s pretty normal, but his demeanor impressed coaches and teammates who have seen a number of players benched who responded in different ways than Hurts did.

Brian Daboll, now head coach of the New York Giants but previously the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Alabama in 2017, had nothing but high praise for Hurts in the week leading up to his first game against the Philadelphia Eagles this season.

“He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around, and he was young at that particular time,” said Daboll. “But he had leadership. He had toughness. He was all day football. He knew how to relate to everyone in his unit.  I would just say the mental toughness that he has — and his ability just to focus on the next thing, not worry about what happened last game, the last play — comes from a football family. And he really means a lot to me.”

“He was a good leader. He was a good performer,” Saban said after Hurts’ impressive six-touchdown performance for Oklahoma against Houston. “And I also think when things didn’t go his way, he showed a lot of character as a person to continue to try to improve himself and do everything he could to help his team. And in this day and age, you don’t often see that.”

Hurts remained committed to developing alongside Tagovailoa while helping the other quarterback along the way. And his preparation allowed him to take over for Tagovailoa, in a role reversal, in the SEC Championship game against Georgia. He led the team to a win.

Saban can’t say enough about Hurts. “You have to understand, he went 26-2 here as a starter. Bought into everything in the program and got beat out. And went through a whole season after being 26-2 as a starter, of being a backup player,” said Saban in an interview with The 33rd Team.

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“I always meet with the players, strengths, weaknesses, what you need to work on,” he said. “I said, ‘you need to work on becoming a better passer. You can’t just make plays with your feet. So, this whole season I want you to focus on reading coverages, being more instinctive with getting the ball out of your hand quick.

“Anticipating throws and windows and understanding the passing game better and being able to read and dissect what you need to do quickly, focus on that. Because you want to play in the NFL someday, that’s what you need to improve on.”

Saban recounted that Hurts practiced enormous diligence to this effect, making sure not to run in practice and playing as a pocket passer throughout the season.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of seeing this guy in the Super Bowl only because I know firsthand I knew what he went through to get there. And how he dedicated himself to making himself a better player, make him a complete player at the position,” Saban explained.

While at Oklahoma, Hurts shared a nugget of wisdom about how he approaches leadership and adversity.

“I think you’ve got to try to be the coffee bean,” Hurts said. “When I say coffee bean … you’ve got the carrot, the egg. You put an egg in boiling water, it hardens up. … The carrot softens up. The coffee bean spreads and gets stronger and impacts the people around you. You try to be that coffee bean.”

At the 2020 Senior Bowl, held in Mobile, Alabama, it was not uncommon for locals to accost media members attending the event to let them know how excellent a person they believed Hurts to be. His conduct and demeanor at Alabama, before transferring to Oklahoma, struck an Alabama staff and fanbase as an example of extraordinary character.

Jalen Hurts Immediately Impressed Players at Oklahoma

Hurts graduated from Alabama and transferred to Oklahoma in order to compete with five-star recruit Spencer Rattler for the starting job.

As Chiefs starting center and former Oklahoma player Creed Humphrey said, “When he got there, you could tell that from the start, everybody kind of put their trust in him. So, you know, me and him were both, you know, kind of the leaders of that team that year. And just being around him, it was awesome, you know, just picking his brain and how he would kind of see things talk to him through about things like that. It was cool.”

Hurts engendered immediate buy-in from the program. “You could tell how bad he wanted to be successful,” said Humphrey. “You got a guy like that in the room, and that’s just infectious.”

Eagles teammate and former Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson echoed the sentiment. “My confidence came from him pretty early. I was very impressed with how he handled himself in college,” Johnson explained.

“I feel like a lot of people wouldn’t have done that in that manner, had that much grace going through what he did. But you know, just even through the first two seasons [in the NFL], we had some adversity. But he never changed his personality, never changed his work ethic. Never changed. And whenever success started happening, same Jalen from the start.”

Hurts was able to take a capable Oklahoma team to the College Football Playoff, where he ran into the buzzsaw that was the 2019 LSU Tigers team.

That season, he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to Joe Burrow after improving his passing performance from a 107.0 NFL passer rating in 2017 to a 128.9 NFL passer rating in 2019. Hurts also added 20 touchdowns on the ground, rushed for 1,298 yards, and only threw eight picks.

Jalen Hurts Demoted Again

Hurts was demoted to backup when he entered the NFL draft, finding himself on a team that already had an MVP-quality player in Carson Wentz. The Eagles invested in him not so that he would take over for Wentz but because they, more than any other franchise, knew the importance of having a good backup quarterback.

But Wentz was breaking down. His level of play had cratered, and rumors had swirled about his inability to lead the locker room and unwillingness to connect with other players.

These accounts weren’t isolated, with the Philly Voice reporting that there were a lot of players who didn’t believe in the quarterback and that a number of veterans were angry when Wentz reportedly asked for a trade. “How are you supposed to follow a leader like that?” one source told the Philly Voice.

Several former Eagles went on to clarify that, though Wentz was not a ‘locker room cancer,’ it was clear that he was isolated and off on his own.

That the reports went on to say that Wentz would miss meetings with head coach Doug Pederson and checked out of the Eagles organization after Hurts ascended up the depth chart and replaced him. Once a prodigy in his own right, anointed to become the next great quarterback, Hurts was forced to wait in the wings.

Now, waiting in the wings, he saw another potential prodigy stumble. His number was called, and he stepped up.

Having someone like Hurts in that locker room was critical to keeping the team together. Without it, half of the core playing in this year’s Super Bowl would likely have found their way somewhere else. Now, the Eagles can’t get enough of their quarterback

Jalen Hurts Is Doing His Best Michael Jordan Impression

After Jalen Hurts and the Eagles took care of the New York Giants in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, head coach Nick Sirianni compared Hurts to Michael Jordan.

“To have him out there is like ー I know this is high praise, but to have him out there is like having, I shouldn’t even go there ー it’s like having Michael Jordan out there,” Sirianni said. “He’s your leader. He’s your guy.”

Sirianni had previously compared Hurts – in the same presser – to Allen Iverson and Mo Cheeks, but something about Hurts encouraged Sirianni to ramp up the stakes. He clarified in a media availability before the Super Bowl what he meant by that lofty comparison.

“I grew up the biggest Michael Jordan fan. You know, being 41 years old. I think everybody my age is gonna tell you they were Bulls fans,” he said.

“When I became a coach, and really studying great teams and great players and great coaches, you know, I’m really inspired by somebody like Michael Jordan and his will to win. And that’s what I’m really saying when I compare. It’s the will to win of Jalen Hurts, and it’s the will to win of Michael Jordan.”

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Sirianni was asked if it was surprising or rare to see a 24-year-old with his kind of poise and leadership. “I think that’s just who he is, regardless of his age, that’s just who he is as a competitor, as a player, I guess.”

“It’s rare in the fact that – I think – I mean, I see it every day. I witness it every day of him, you know, just not being caught up in any moment. That speaks to who he is, how he was raised, and that he’s steady. It’s impressive to see, but it’s what I’m accustomed to now with Jalen. He’s the same guy every day.”

Miles Sanders, when asked about Hurts, said, “Jalen’s leadership, it’s tremendous. I can’t even really put it into words.”

A.J. Brown reiterated the point. “Jalen’s demeanor never changes. It never changes. It’s always what you guys see. You know? I know people try really hard trying to get him to smile and do other stuff, but he’s really locked in.”

As for Hurts? He said the approach was simple. “The number one thing that I’ve always felt was important for me to do,” he said, “Is just really go when I go into these new situations, transfer from school to school, going into the NFL locker room, or whatever it is, I think it’s important I want to respect the people, your peers, by what you do.”

“That then gives you the opportunity to lead, hopefully, let your voice be heard. But you have to learn the lay of the land. You can’t go in there demanding anything. You have to go earn it. I know that respect is earned in the locker room for the growing. I’ve kind of been the same throughout this entire time. I don’t think that will change, regardless.”

Like coffee in water, it looks like Hurts’ message has spread.

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