QB Curve: Ignore the numbers. Jalen Hurts is Alabama's MVP
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different SEC signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective. Previously: Jalen Hurts (Part 1) • Drew Lock • Nick Fitzgerald • Kyle Shurmur • Jake Bentley • Danny Etling • Shea Patterson • Stephen Johnson • Feleipe Franks • Jarrett Stidham
QB of the Week: Jalen Hurts (Remix)
Typecasting: The Rock. The first time I covered Hurts in this space, in August, the question was whether the precocious, self-possessed freshman who carried Alabama to the cusp of a national championship in 2016 would take the next step as a sophomore toward becoming a full-fledged, Heisman-worthy star. It turned out to be such a good question that we’re still asking it 12 weeks later, in mid-November, in the middle of the final stretch of Bama’s Playoff run. Hurts has 24 career starts under his belt now, more than any other active SEC quarterback except Missouri’s Drew Lock. Just how much has he grown, really?
On paper, frankly, not that much: Through 10 games, Hurts is attempting fewer passes per game than he did as a freshman, for fewer yards, with a lower completion percentage and a lower touchdown rate. His overall efficiency rating (149.6) ranks just fifth among SEC starters — just behind LSU’s Danny Etling — and is almost identical to his rating at the same point on the calendar last year, before his postseason slump against elite defenses. His rushing output is roughly the same. Bama’s overall output as a team is roughly the same. And Hurts’ share of that output has declined, from 54.7 percent of the team’s total offense as a freshman to 48.6 percent.
Ask anyone who’s watched him closely the past two years, though, and the answer is likely to be very different. In Year 2, Hurts has looked more in command of the offense, expanded his repertoire as a passer, and virtually eliminated big mistakes; he has zero fumbles in 117 carries, and his interception rate (1 in 193 attempts) is the best in the nation by far. And while the offense has deliberately spread the wealth in blowouts, leaning more heavily on its bottomless supply of running backs and reserving significant snaps for backup Tua Tagovailoa, as long as the game remains competitive — especially if the game remains competitive in the fourth quarter — there is no doubt who coaches trust most with the ball in his hands. So far, Hurts has yet to give them any reason not to.
The Good. Let’s start with the obvious: Kid can still run. Alabama divvies up carries roughly evenly between Hurts and its top two running backs, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, each of whom comes in for about 10 carries per game (excluding sacks, in Hurts’ case) in what amounts to a shotgun-based triple-option attack in terms of distribution. That follows the 2016 pattern to a tee, and will likely result in Hurts flirting with a 1,000-yard season on the ground (again, excluding sacks) for the second year in a row. He’s elusive in the pocket and at 210 pounds will not hesitate to lower his shoulder at the end of a run.
— InsideBamaRecruiting (@RTRnews) November 12, 2017
The only notable difference between this year and last year is that Hurts hasn’t been nearly as explosive, breaking just two runs of 30 yards or longer after ripping off eight 30-yarders as a freshman. At the same time, though, he’s been more efficient, gaining at least 10 yards on more than 26 percent of his total carries (up from 17.8 percent last year) and converting more than 31 percent for first downs (up from 25.6 percent). Excluding sacks, his per-carry average has leapt by more than half a yard, from 7.1 a pop to 7.7, good for second in the SEC behind only Damien Harris.
His improvement as a passer is less obvious, except in two important respects. One, he’s kept the ball out of trouble — see the stupendous interception rate above. And two, in the rare situations when the Crimson Tide’s backs have been against the wall he’s been dynamite:
Alabama almost never falls behind, but when it does Hurts and the offense respond immediately. Going back to last year’s Playoff semifinal against Washington, opponents have scored to go ahead of Alabama just six times; on five of those occasions, the Crimson Tide answered with a touchdown on the very next series.
Against Washington, the Huskies scored to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter; Bama immediately countered with a nine-play, 78-yard drive to tie, of which Hurts accounted for 33 yards as a rusher and passer. In the championship game against Clemson, the Tide led throughout until Clemson scored to go ahead 28-24 late in the fourth quarter; Bama immediately countered with a six-play, 68-yard drive, capped by a Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run to regain the lead with just over two minutes to play. (Remember, that was Alabama’s last offensive play of the season; a defensive stop on the Tigers’ subsequent series would have clinched the title.)
In this year’s season opener against Florida State, the Seminoles drove 90 yards to take a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter; Bama immediately countered with a five-play, 85-yard drive on which Hurts accounted for 82 yards, the majority of them coming on a long touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley that put the Tide back on top for good.
Before last weekend, it was beginning to look like for good meant for good: Bama didn’t trail again at any point in its next eight games. When they fell behind early against Mississippi State, though, the Tide countered immediately with a five-play, 75-yard drive to tie on the next possession, highlighted by a 63-yard pass from Hurts to Ridley that set up the touchdown. When Mississippi State responded with another long, time-consuming march to retake the lead, 14-7, Bama countered immediately with another five-play, 75-yard drive, virtually identical to the first, except that this time the big play from Hurts to Ridley was ad-libbed and covered only 61 yards. In the second half, when Mississippi State kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-17, Bama countered immediately with a 10-play, 82-yard drive to tie, on which Hurts accounted for 37 yards and converted a clutch scramble on fourth down.
That game ended, of course, with Hurts leading the only true game-winning drive of his career, a 68-yard march on which he reportedly audibled into the slant route to Ridley on 3rd-and-15 that gained 31 yards against an all-out MSU blitz; on the next play he wielded the dagger on a 26-yard TD pass to freshman DeVonta Smith. So far, that drive rivals the go-ahead score against Clemson as the most clutch moment of Hurts’ young career, all the more so because he engineered it with his arm and his recognition of the opposing defense amid the din of 50,000 clanging cowbells. So he has proved that he can do that sort of thing, when he has to. But it’s very much to his credit, too, that over the course of his previous 22 victories as a starter he never had to.
The Not-So-Good. There are still legitimate questions about Hurts’ accuracy downfield and the limits of his arm strength that he’ll probably never outgrow. Alabama is so good at what it does that it’s hard to discern whether Hurts’ relative reluctance to let it rip is an actual physical limitation or just comes with the job of playing quarterback for Nick Saban; Hurts’ arm is certainly adequate, with the athletes on hand, there are plenty of big plays to be had on run-after-catch opportunities — especially to Ridley, the most dangerous RAC receiver in the nation — without pressing for low-percentage bombs. It doesn’t help, either, that his offensive line has occasionally struggled to keep him clean for long enough to set up for a long ball.
For the most part, Hurts has been less dependent this year on the multitude of short, safe, horizontal throws that buoyed him as a true freshman, when he aimed more than 40 percent of his attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage; this year that number is closer to 25 percent. But he still rarely challenges cornerbacks in man coverage more than 20 yards downfield, and rarely connects when he does; a simple go route down the sideline seems to be almost out of the question, unless it’s a back-shoulder throw that relies on his receiver to win a one-on-one battle for the ball. Strictly based on “arm talent,” I don’t think I’ve seen a throw on film at this point that would raise the eyebrows of a an NFL scout — the closest would probably be this deep post route against LSU, which gained 47 yards to freshman Henry Ruggs III. Hurts might have the raw tools to be a draft pick in a few years (he definitely has the size), but he has a long way to go when it comes to threading throws into tight windows.
Most of the time that doesn’t matter, but as the defenses got better late last year and the windows got tighter his productivity plummeted; Alabama’s postseason games against Florida in the SEC Championship, Washington in the semifinal, and Clemson in the title game still stand as arguably the three worst passing outings of Hurts’ career. His performances against the three most athletic defenses on the schedule this year (Florida State, Texas A&M and LSU) have been similarly muted aside from one or two big plays in each game. Until proven otherwise earning respect from the kind of top-shelf defenses he expects to see in January is the glaring issue.
The Takeaway. Hurts’ last-minute heroics against Mississippi State moved his record to 23-1 as a starter, and with a record like that it’s always the one that seems to mean the most. Hurts played well enough against Clemson (and against Washington in the semi) for Alabama to claim back-to-back championships, only to endure an offseason of skepticism when the title slipped away. In retrospect, he wasn’t quite as far along as a freshman as everyone had assumed, even if it took lining him up across from a borderline NFL defensive line and a first-round counterpart on the opposite sideline to prove it.
If there’s any doubt this year, it has less to do with Hurts than the fact that Alabama’s defense has been seriously strained by injuries, and above all the Crimson Tide haven’t faced anyone this year within shouting distance of Playoff relevance. The points spread in the Iron Bowl moved by a full touchdown over the weekend in the direction of Auburn; the Crimson Tide are only favored by three points, in large part because the scare in Starkville cast serious doubt on Bama’s strength of schedule on the same day that Auburn put all doubts about its potential against top opponents to bed.
After what they did to Georgia, the Tigers will represent the best chance Hurts has had since January to distinguish the current offense from the one that came up just short last year. For a guy we know awful well at this point, watching him deliver on a stage that will demand a championship effort to survive can still tell us an awful lot.
Ta’amu to the Rescue. Is it possible that Ole Miss lost Shea Patterson for the year … and got better? Before he got hurt, Patterson was accounting for more than 80 percent of the Rebels’ total offense, the highest individual share of any player in the country. In his absence, though, the offense has been every bit as explosive under JuCo transfer Jordan Ta’amu, putting up 37 points in each of Ta’amu’s first two starts (wild, down-to-the-wire finishes against Arkansas and Kentucky) and 50 in Saturday’s blowout win over UL-Lafayette. And Ta’amu’s production in those three games, specifically, has been off the charts:
That’s not the stiffest competition in the world, but those are some legitimately wild numbers — 73.5 percent completion rate? 10.6 yards per attempt? — for a 3-star recruit who was brought on explicitly to serve as a backup. And they don’t reflect his rushing output, which has been significantly better than Patterson’s.
We’re certainly not to the point yet that Ta’amu looks like a serious threat to unseat Patterson on the 2018 depth chart, if only because 5-star, face-of-the-program quarterbacks with Patterson’s production will always get the benefit of the doubt. But Rebels fans have seen enough for the thought to cross their minds, which no one would have predicted when Patterson limped off against LSU, and if Ta’amu finishes strong against Texas A&M this weekend and (especially) Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl he’ll have arguably the more impressive body of work to carry into the offseason and spring practice.
At minimum, they know they have a viable insurance policy on the off chance Patterson opts to transfer on the other side of the pending NCAA verdict and full-time coaching hire. As much uncertainty and negativity as the program has faced over the past year, it could be a lot worse.
Momma Said There’ll Be Days Like This. Georgia’s 40-17 flop at Auburn sent the Jake Fromm bandwagon careening into a ravine in record time, and even his pedestrian stat line (13-for-28, 184 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) doesn’t quite capture how severely the freshman struggled for the vast majority of the game. Here are the splits between his production on the Bulldogs’ touchdown drives, on their first and last possessions, and the 10 doomed, almost entirely fruitless possessions in between:
We’ve spent most of the season wondering how Fromm would hold up when an opposing defense succeeded in putting the offense on his shoulders, and when it finally happened the results weren’t great, to say the least. His offensive line deserves its share of the blame on most of the sacks, and even more so for its failure to open up any lanes whatsoever on the ground, consistently leaving Fromm to face the kind of second- and third-and-long situations he’d managed to avoid the rest of the year.
But Fromm looked like a freshman is expected to look in his first real SEC road test. He held on to the ball too long, he misfired on open targets downfield — the first half incompletion off the fingertips of a wide-open Riley Ridley was a crucial missed opportunity — and generally looked rattled as the hole got deeper.
That said: It’s one game, Fromm is still entrenched as Georgia’s starter, and Georgia is still alive for what may as well be considered the SEC’s automatic bid to the Playoff. The Bulldogs will need him in Atlanta at his poised, efficient best, whether he’s asked to put the ball in the air 28 times again or 12. They have two weeks to get him back there.
MATTHEW STAFFORD ARM OF THE WEEK: Danny Etling
The chief regret in LSU’s Week 10 loss at Alabama was missed opportunities deep, particularly between Etling and D.J. Chark: Etling was 0-for-4 against the Tide when targeting his best receiver more than 25 yards downfield, despite the fact that Chark had clearly beaten man-to-man coverage on all four attempts. Against Arkansas, the connection came a little easier on both ends, beginning with a 45-yard, play-action bomb from Etling to a wide-open Chark to open the scoring in the first quarter; later, they hooked up again from 68 yards out, on a perfectly placed ball by Etling that traveled a good 50 yards in the air:
DJ Chark 4x130yards, 2 TD today. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t look like he’s trying. pic.twitter.com/FPrYvCqRhC
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) November 11, 2017
Incredibly, prior to those scores Chark had yet to haul in a receiving TD this season, despite averaging nearly 25 yards per catch – that ranks second nationally, and first among Power 5 receivers with at least 20 receptions. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.
QB CURVE POWER HOUR!
Ranking the league’s starting quarterbacks heading into Week 12. (Last week’s rankings reflect most recent edition of QB Curve on Oct. 31.)
1. Jalen Hurts, Alabama. Sometimes I wish Hurts played for any other team just for the chance to put his value in perspective, independently of a lineup capable of leading the league in scoring with its starting QB accounting for less than 50 percent of its total offense. If he did, my guess is he’d still be a prime contender for this spot with more Dak Prescott-like numbers — albeit with more than one turnover to his name, too. (Last Week: 1)
2. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. This week is as close as Stidham or anyone else has come this year to unseating Hurts from the top spot. His numbers warrant it, and if such a significant chunk of his production against Georgia hadn’t come on screen passes that broke for big gains I might have made the switch. Just one more prize at stake in the Iron Bowl! (LW: 2)
3. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. An underrated aspect of Fitzgerald’s success as a runner is his ability to avoid negative plays: He’s one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the nation and has only been docked 36 negative yards all season on 137 attempts. (LW: 3)
4. Drew Lock, Missouri. Compared to the tear he’d been on since the calendar turned to October, Lock cooled down significantly in Missouri’s run-oriented win against Tennessee (13-for-28 for 217 yards) and still wound up with four touchdown passes. That extended his streak of throwing at least three TD passes to six consecutive games, vs. just four interceptions in the same span. (LW: 6)
5. Jake Fromm, Georgia. Fromm still ranks in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency, but at 17.8 attempts per game he’s still the only guy in that category averaging fewer than 28 attempts. (LW: 5)
6. Jake Bentley, South Carolina. Bentley was picked off three times against Florida without a touchdown, continuing his slide from the league’s upper echelon of passers even as his team improved to 7-3 on the year. (LW: 4)
7. Danny Etling, LSU. Etling came through with the best outing of his career against Arkansas despite playing through what sounds like a significant amount of pain. (LSU won’t disclose the specifics.) Either he should play hurt more often, or play more often against Arkansas’ secondary. (LW: 8)
8. Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss. Ta’amu’s sudden ascent has caught the notice of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which recently added him to its watch list for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year. (LW: 14)
9. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky. Johnson’s had a weird month statistically, following two terrible performances (against Mississippi State and Tennessee) with two very good performances (against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt) and somehow finishing with a grand total of one touchdown and two interceptions over the course of all four. (LW: 7)
10. Austin Allen, Arkansas. I had my doubts we’d see Allen again after his month-long hiatus due to a shoulder injury, but he was back in the starting lineup against LSU and will presumably stay there: The Razorbacks’ other quarterback, the Brobdingnagian Cole Kelley, was suspended indefinitely following his post-game arrest on a drunken driving charge. (LW: n/a)
11. Nick Starkel, Texas A&M. Starkel, the opening day starter, has returned to replace the guy who replaced him, Kellen Mond, whose rapid ascent up these rankings was, in retrospect, a little too rapid: Between the Aggies’ spirited loss to Alabama and their not-so-spirited loss to Auburn, the freshman’s season swiftly unraveled. Following Starkel’s gonzo performance against New Mexico, the pecking order should be set for the rest of the regular season, at least. (LW: n/a)
12. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt. Shurmur passed for 308 yards in the Commodores’ loss to Kentucky, eclipsing the 300-yard mark for only the third in his career. He also threw four interceptions, more than he had in Vandy’s first nine games combined.(LW: 10)
13. Feleipe Franks/Malik Zaire, Florida. Zaire won’t play Saturday against UAB after a bizarre injury sequence against South Carolina, thus sparing him any role in the Gators’ pending humiliation at the hands of UAB. (LW: 12)
14. Jarrett Guarantano/Will McBride, Tennessee. Interim coach Brady Hoke (!) closed practice on Monday and declined to update Guarantano’s status after McBride took every snap in the Vols’ loss at Missouri. One of the two will start Saturday against LSU; I’m not even sure at this point Tennessee fans care very much which one. (LW: 11)