It was awfully rocky on Rocky Top this week, as running back Jalen Hurd stunned the SEC with his decision to transfer from Tennessee.
After rushing for 1,288 yards in 2015, Hurd has battled injuries and ineffectiveness this season. A second-team all-conference pick at Media Days in July, Hurd is 18th in the league in rushing and averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
Apparently unhappy with the shape of the Volunteers offense for quite a while, Hurd not only wants to switch schools, he wants to switch positions. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder now envisions himself as a hybrid tight end/slot receiver. It’s a curious decision from the No. 6 rusher — just 42 yards behind Jamal Lewis, too — in UT history.
The prevailing sentiment is that Hurd is simply doing what’s best for him, regardless of the fact that “quitter” might be the worst possible label for a football player. What will the NFL think about this move?
Rob Rang, the year-round draft guru for CBS Sports, spent some time with SDS for an exclusive Hurd-related Q&A.
Saturday Down South: Before this news broke, what was the general opinion of scouts, coaches and general managers of Hurd as a running back prospect at the next level? His decision to leave the Vols is doubly strange since he wants to be a tight end now.
Rob Rang: For one, obviously, he’s been a productive player. You like the fact that he’s as athletic as he is at that size. He’s demonstrated the ability to drop his shoulder and run over defenders that you would expect for a back of that size. He’s not just a powerful back. He’s got the ability to make cuts and accelerate away.
But at the same time, he’s not an elite athlete that you think that here’s a guy that you can build your offense around at the next level.
SDS: Because this was supposed to be the Year of the Running Back in the SEC, Hurd was mentioned in the same breath during the offseason with the likes of LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Georgia’s Nick Chubb. My opinion is that he’s nowhere near the same level of talent, so does the NFL community agree with me?
RR: That’s absolutely the belief, that Hurd is a step below those players. Nick Chubb is a terrific football player. His ability to come back from the injury, he’s been every bit as explosive and powerful. Just a phenomenal player. Leonard Fournette is a freakish talent. In my personal opinion, he’s the most gifted running back that we’ve seen come down the pike in years. Just the combination of size, explosiveness, you see the power. Clearly, he’s explosiveness personified. That’s Leonard Fournette.
I think that Jalen Hurd, you’re talking about a player that doesn’t have that same kind of explosiveness. And at 240 pounds or thereabouts, I wonder how he’s going to be able to play down to down. You always look for other players with a similar skill set who have been successful. There just haven’t been very many that have Jalen Hurd’s size and speed at the running back position do well.
SDS: We’re yet to hear the full story, of course, and we likely never will, but it sure seems like Hurd flat-out quit on his team in the middle of the season for purely selfish reasons. No matter what he does at his next destination, how is this episode being viewed by NFL franchises as we speak?
RR: I think that there needs to be confirmation for what the reasons were. What I think you’ll see NFL teams do, there’ll be all kinds of pre-draft questions. I’ve had the opportunity to read what’s been reported, the mother comments, and it reads like the way a parent should in my opinion.
Because Jalen Hurd is a talented football player and he has been as productive as he has against the elite competition, they’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt I believe. And I think that at least one NFL team out there will take a chance on him if they get the athlete that they’re hoping for when they do get that opportunity to look at him.
SDS: While he’s certainly got the size necessary to be some sort of pass-catching tight end in the pros, he was at best a decent receiver out of the backfield in college. When you turn on the tape and watch him play, do you see a prospect capable of developing into a difference maker at that spot?
RR: In fact I do, maybe even as a slot receiver. I mentioned before about what running backs tend to do at that size. The one guy is Latavius Murray. I see similarities in their playing style and their size, and that’s what I think that you could see Jalen Hurd becoming. He’s a running back but also a guy who comes out and excels out of the backfield. That was something I saw about Jalen Hurd that impresses my perception of him at Tennessee, and I believe that he can make that transition.
Now, again, I don’t believe that means that he can be a hand-in-the-dirt, traditional tight end that’s going to be moving defensive ends and gets to the second level. I’m also doubting his ability as a route runner. I think he can at least be competitive at that spot, and I see his ability with the football in his hands is evident if he works on it.
SDS: The NFL is more sensitive to off-the-field issues than ever before, although the more talent you have, the more chances you get. I don’t see how this move can possibly help him down the road, so what are the chances that he’s irreparably damaged his reputation for the long haul?
RR: It’s a possibility, certainly. But I think that NFL teams, there’s too much time and too much resources going into the draft. And so for a player who’s been this productive, they’re going to do their due diligence. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Hurd winds up getting an invitation to one of the senior All-Star games. He’s going to be in the facility, and he’s a pretty good football player. So I think that because of that, he’ll certainly get an opportunity.
But there’s no question that if teams don’t feel satisfied with the answer they get, and if the evidence suggests that he flat-out selfishly quit on his teammates, then it could absolutely drop him down draft boards and potentially even drop him out of the draft entirely.