When measuring Jalen Hurts’ lasting impression on the Alabama football program, one title stands above the rest for Joe Pannunzio.
It isn’t tied to any of the big wins the Eagles assistant special teams coach and Hurts had during their shared time at the school, or any of Hurts’ accolades. Instead, it’s something he’s reminded of when he reconnects with the woman holding one of Tuscaloosa’s most demanding jobs: Nick Saban’s longtime administrative assistant.
“She might have the hardest job in the whole world,” Pannunzio told The Inquirer. “Putting up with [Saban] every day, every minute of the day. Her favorite person is Jalen Hurts.”
Hurts apparently converted Linda Leoni, the woman who has managed Saban’s schedule for decades, into an Eagles fan. When Pannunzio and Leoni talk, he says she’ll eventually ask, “How’s my boy doing?”
“That says a lot about Jalen right there,” Pannunzio said.
In the last 11 years, Pannunzio has spent six seasons with the Crimson Tide and five with the Eagles as both a coach and a personnel executive. He overlapped with Hurts and DeVonta Smith at Alabama during the 2017 and 2018 seasons before returning to the Eagles the following year.
After going nearly two decades without drafting an Alabama prospect, the Eagles have quickly formed a nucleus of young players in burgeoning leadership roles with Crimson Tide roots. Hurts was an Oklahoma Sooner by the time the Eagles drafted him in the second round of the 2020 draft, but the influence his time with Saban had on him is apparent.
Smith, the team’s first-round pick in last year’s draft, has become one of the leaders in a young wide receiver room and guard Landon Dickerson has started 13 games as a rookie after going in the second round.
The Eagles are hardly “Alabama North.” Their locker room has well-established leaders such as Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, and Fletcher Cox. But Hurts has emerged as part of that nucleus this season.
» READ MORE: Nick Sirianni previews wild-card matchup vs. Bucs
“We try to lead by example, and every player does that in different ways,” Hurts said. “It’s great to see guys like Jason Kelce, Fletch, and BG, seeing the standard they’ve created for this place and the special things that they’ve done in the past. Some of those things, we’re searching to do again.”
That search begins in earnest this Sunday, when the Eagles travel to Tampa Bay to take on the Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The Crimson Tide played in its own big game on Monday night. Appearing in its sixth national championship game in the last eight years, it lost to Georgia, 33-18. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is hoping Hurts, Smith, and Dickerson’s experience in those playoff environments pays off for the Eagles this weekend.
“Jalen’s never played in the playoffs, DeVonta’s never played in the playoffs, Landon’s never played in the playoffs, but they’ve played in national championship games,” Sirianni said Monday. “Those games are huge. They have the same type of hoopla that surrounds them, so I’m confident. We have winners on this football team.”
Smith won two national titles during his four years at Alabama. One in 2017 and another in 2020 as the Heisman Trophy winner.
Hurts led Alabama to the national championship game in each of his first two seasons. The team lost to Clemson his freshman year and won the following season, but Hurts was benched at halftime in favor of Tua Tagovailoa.
Hurts transferred to Oklahoma for his senior year, but the influence Alabama and Saban had on him is palpable, from the way he handles the media, the way he refers to coverage as “rat poison,” and his general demeanor.
“I think there’s a different aura around ‘Bama guys,” Hurts said. “How we operate, where we come from, the standard we have for ourselves, and what we’ve been around. That’s a testament to a great winning culture at Alabama, Coach Saban and the foundation he’s laid for all of those athletes to come through.”
That aura has been apparent for the players close to the Alabama guys, too. Jordan Mailata has plenty of exposure, from his linemate Dickerson to Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, who left Alabama for the Eagles in 2013.
“It’s nice being around those guys who are going to hold you accountable because all they want to talk about is how to get better,” Mailata said. “How to apply the right technique, and just keep winning games. Keeping the same detail and discipline.”
Sirianni has pushed the “1% better” mantra since training camp, so it’s not an approach exclusive to the Alabama players on the team. It is a major factor, Pannunzio said, in the way players from the Tuscaloosa are wired, though.
During the years he spent working with Saban, he saw college and NFL coaches visit, trying to figure out what contributed to the program’s sustained success.
The answer wasn’t as convoluted as they expected.
“I can honestly say this, it’s nothing that’s like a secret. Just do the right [stuff] today,” Pannunzio said. “It’s easy to do it today, and it’s kind of easy the next day, and it’s kind of easy to do it the third day, but after a week it’s kind of like ‘ugh,’ after a month, after a year you’re kind of sick of it. You get to where, when you don’t do the things you know deep down in your heart are the right things to do, it kind of bothers you, so that’s what you become.”
“It’s all about the process. Saban never ever talked about winning. It’s all about how you prepare, it’s how you get yourself ready. It’s a mindset.”
The approach has proved beneficial for Hurts in his first full year as a starter. He limited turnovers better than he did as a rookie and made strides as a passer as the season progressed.
He finished the regular season with 3,144 passing yards, completed 61.4% of his passes, and had 16 touchdown passes to nine interceptions. He also became one of the focal points of the Eagles’ dominant run game, rushing for team-highs of 784 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Will the pressure of delivering in his playoff debut faze the 23-year-old? Pannunzio said the experience Sirianni cited makes it unlikely.
“The stage doesn’t become too big for him,” he said. “Even like now, you can kind of see, we’re going into the playoffs and the expectation level here is not to just go to the playoffs. We’re playing a very, very good team, we’ll have to play at our very best. But just like the way Alabama trained us, it’s about the process. It’s about how we practice this week, how we carry ourselves and how we do the little things to give ourselves maybe a chance to do what nobody else thinks we could do. That’s what this is about.”