ATLANTA -- Jalen Hurts checked the notifications on his phone amid the raucous celebration going on inside Alabama’s locker room after beating Georgia to the win the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T early Tuesday morning. The quarterback’s battery was low, so he found a charger in Tua Tagovailoa’s stall that was beside his and plugged it in.
As it turns out, even Hurts needed a spark from his backup.
This wasn’t the game he or anyone had imagined. The sophomore from Houston, Texas, technically got the win as the starter, improving his record to 26-2, but he wasn’t the reason Nick Saban won his fifth title at Alabama and his sixth overall. Not in the least. The former SEC Offensive Player of the Year completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards before Saban made the bold move of pulling him at halftime with the Crimson Tide trailing, 13-0.
Still, Hurts understood. He didn’t sulk. He stayed engaged in the game even after being benched and was the first to greet Tagovailoa when he came off the field following each series.
In fact, Hurts might have been the happiest player in the locker room inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a rare show of emotion for such a guarded personality. He grinned wildly and his eyes welled up on the verge of tears. He was so happy for his understudy, so happy for his teammates, so happy to get the championship that eluded him a year earlier when he scored the go-ahead touchdown against Clemson with roughly two minutes remaining only for Deshaun Watson to outdo him and lead the Tigers to an epic come-from-behind victory.
“It’s a great feeling, man,” Hurts said. “The greatest feeling I ever felt.”
There was no animosity when Saban announced at halftime that two quarterbacks would play. It wasn’t even a conversation, Hurts explained.
“We came out slow and [he] made the change,” he said. “It’s probably what was best for the team. We won. We’re national champs. You can’t wish for anything more than that.”
He looked at Tagovailoa with pride: “He was ready for this. He’s built for stuff like this.”
Soon, the question will be asked whether Hurts’ understudy was built to supplant him.
The left-handed true freshman from Hawaii may not have Hurts’ ability to run between the tackles with power, but he has escapability, as evidenced by his Houdini-like 10-yard run on third-and-7 in the third quarter. And with all due respect to Hurts' strong throwing arm, Tagovailoa’s might be on another level. His accuracy and strength is rare, and maybe more importantly than that, his confidence to make every throw in the book defies a long history of conservative quarterbacks under Saban, Hurts included.
Tagovailoa's 41-yard walk-off touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime took gusto, looking off Georgia's safety just enough to take the shot into the end zone.
Jerry Jeudy, a wide receiver and fellow freshman, described Tagovailoa as a gunslinger. He’s more of a pocket-passer than Hurts, he explained.
“He’s got a great arm,” he said.
In the afterglow of the national championship, with those three spectacular touchdown throws playing on repeat, it’s hard to imagine Tagovailoa letting go of the reins. Hurts might have just gotten Wally Pipp’d on the game’s biggest stage.
Remember, this isn’t a new phenomenon. All one needed to do was look at the opposing sideline in Atlanta to see Jacob Eason, the sophomore starter once believed to be Georgia’s next great QB, serving as the backup to stud freshman Jake Fromm.
Just don’t go lumping Hurts in that category so fast, says Saban.
Later Tuesday morning, after just a few hours of sleep, the 66-year-old coach wasn’t ready to make any sweeping statements about who his quarterback would be next year.
“Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt,” he said with the national championship trophy on his right and the game’s offensive MVP, Tagovailoa, on his left, onstage in Atlanta. “I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that, and it’s not imperative we make one right now. We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked hard to help each other all year long.”
Translation: I don’t know who it will be, but I really like this kid beside me right now.
How Hurts handles this new wrinkle will be interesting to see play out. But consider this: Despite Hurts leading Alabama to back-to-back national championship appearances, despite becoming the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker, despite more than 6,500 total yards and 61 touchdowns, the idea that fans would clamor for another quarterback is nothing new. The moment Alabama lost to Clemson, the call for Tagovailoa -- although no one could yet pronounce his name -- were noticeable.
Hurts shut out the noise then and put together a great sophomore season with 17 passing touchdowns to just one interception.
But now it’s clear that his style of play needs to change. Being a caretaker of the offense won’t cut it when an offensive weapon like Tagovailoa has presented himself.
Hurts will need to spend the next few months fine-tuning his game and becoming more comfortable moving the ball downfield. Getting outside of his comfort zone as a runner is a must in order to utilize the skill Alabama has at receiver.
The chances of him transferring immediately, while tantalizing right now, don’t seem likely. Hurts, if anything, is not a rash personality. He’s not prone to snap judgments based on emotions.
Rather, look to spring practice as the time to see this drama play out.
Alabama will be everyone’s preseason No. 1-ranked team yet again, and it will have to decide whether Hurts or Tagovailoa is the quarterback to lead them in the fall.
The two quarterbacks will play nice and feed off one another for now and on throughout the process, but sooner or later, Saban will have to pull the trigger on someone.
If it’s ultimately Tagovailoa, Hurts may end up rooting him on from a distance.