The question before the jury today is what, or rather, who is Jalen Hurts?
Is he Lamar Jackson? Or is he Taysom Hill? Is he, as Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has suggested, a promising young quarterback with a unique skill set brought into the world-famous NovaCare Quarterback Factory to develop into a capable, heartbeat-away backup to oft-injured Carson Wentz?
Or is he simply a Hill-like “gadget" guy the Eagles envision using as an occasional weapon in their overhauled offense?
In his draft-night statements after taking Hurts in the second round last month, Roseman insisted that he is both.
He said that while the Eagles drafted Hurts as a quarterback, they obviously recognize his unique skills as an athlete and that “it’s something we’re going to explore."
The 6-foot-1, 222-pound Hurts rushed for 1,298 yards and 20 touchdowns on 233 carries last season at Oklahoma. But he also threw 32 touchdown passes and just eight interceptions, averaged 11.3 yards per attempt, and completed nearly 70% of his passes. Hill had 12 TD passes and 11 interceptions in his last year at BYU.
“It’s all speculation," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said of suggestions that Hurts is more gadget guy than NFL quarterback. “It’ll be a story right now, and then we’ll go play football, and it’ll happen the way it’s going to happen, and it won’t be a story anymore.
“Personally, I think it’s a compliment. The guy’s a gifted athlete. There’s a lot of things you’re going to be able to do with him. That said, I also believe he wasn’t drafted by the Eagles solely to be a gadget guy. That was made very clear by them and every single team that talked to me about Jalen. Not one team saw him in that light.
“Of course you’re going to use everybody on your roster that you possibly can to try and win a championship. But the Eagles are excited about him as the athlete, the player, the leader, and the quarterback.”
The Alabama roller coaster
Hurts went to Oklahoma last year as a graduate transfer after three years at Alabama. In 2016, he was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide in 32 years. He started as a sophomore but was benched at halftime of the national championship game in favor of Tua Tagovailoa.
He spent his junior year backing up Tagovailoa until he got hurt in the SEC championship game. Hurts stepped in and led ‘Bama to a comeback victory, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a quarterback draw.
In an interview with Fran Duffy on the Eagles’ website, Alabama coach Nick Saban said Hurts improved more as the backup than when he was playing.
“He became a better passer," Saban said. “He took the challenge in practice every day. He took the challenge where most guys might go pout and might be frustrated with their circumstances. He didn’t do that at all. He got better, and it showed.’’
Riley said he saw the same thing when he looked at Hurts’ tape from his last year in Tuscaloosa.
“I thought he made some major jumps," he said. “That was the thing that got me excited and made me feel like he could do everything we wanted him to do here. He has a competitive drive that’s not really predicated on results or where he currently is [on the depth chart].
“It’s a great lesson for a lot of young kids out there, that even when it’s not going your way, if you keep putting in the work, you’ll be ready when the time comes. He certainly was toward the end at Alabama, and certainly was for us in the one year we had him."
Hurts played for three offensive coordinators in three years at Alabama. Then he went to Oklahoma and managed to quickly master Riley’s system.
“People that haven’t played the game or coached the game can’t understand how big a deal that is," Riley said. “Counting his senior year in high school, this will be his sixth straight year with a new offensive coordinator and a new offense.
“It’s pretty remarkable what he’s been able to do, given those circumstances. If I were an Eagles fan or an Eagles coach, that would be something that would get me excited about this guy.’’
Despite the dramatic differences between the Sooners’ spread offense and what Alabama runs, Riley had no doubt Hurts would learn it.
From stranger to leader
A bigger concern was how Hurts would adapt to playing for a new program in a one-and-done situation.
“To me, it was how do you adjust to a new organization, to a new way of doing things, to a new way of playing the position," Riley said. “Kind of the mentality and the culture shift. How do you adjust to that, to your new teammates, where all of a sudden you’re coming in and have to be their leader right off the top. That, to me, was the tougher part.
“And then just building relationships with the coaches, the relationship with myself, and the kind of trust we need to have in each other to play that position and be in sync at a high level. The majority of our conversations before he came were centered around those things, and whether this was the right fit for him. We got to the point where we both felt like it was.’’
Riley was pleased to see Hurts get drafted by the Eagles. He thinks it’s a good fit for him; a place where he will thrive.
“As a quarterback, you want to go to a place that’s motivated to have you, and they obviously are," he said. “To have a head coach who is as involved offensively as much as coach [Doug] Pederson is and to have them take you as early as they took Jalen is a great thing.
“They saw some things they recognized. I can tell you this: They were very detailed in the discussions [about him] and the homework that they did on him. They’ve got a plan [for him]. I think it’s a great situation for him.
“With Carson being there, he’s going to get an opportunity to learn from one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Jalen is a team player, and he’s a sponge. He’ll soak up everything he can. And he’ll do everything in his power to help the team win. And you can’t have enough guys like that."
Hurts is walking into a situation that’s very different from that of Riley’s previous two Oklahoma quarterbacks – Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Mayfield and Murray both were the No. 1 picks in the draft. They were considered franchise quarterbacks before they ever threw an NFL pass.
The Eagles already have one of those. If Wentz can stay healthy – and granted, that’s a big if, given his history -- the best-case scenario for Hurts the next three years is getting maybe five or six touches a game on jet sweeps and wildcat formations.
Wentz said all the right things about Hurts in a conference call with reporters. He said he’s “excited" to have him on the team. He said he’s “heard nothing but good things" about him. He said Hurts’ presence will “create a really healthy and challenging environment for all of us." Maybe Wentz believes all of that, and maybe he doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter. If he plays up to his capabilities and stays healthy, he’ll be the Eagles’ starting quarterback for a long time.
Hurts got benched at Alabama and handled it about as well as you can handle a benching. He stayed there, worked hard, supported Tagovailoa, earned his degree, and then moved on to Oklahoma, where he ran and passed for 52 touchdowns and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Hurts and Wentz will get along just fine. He not only will be Wentz’s protégé, he’ll also be his Bible study buddy.
“I think he’ll be received well [in the locker room] because I think he’ll handle it the right way," Riley said. “There’s a right way to handle things within the team. You’ve got to be a competitor and go after the very top. You have to have that, and he does. But he’s going to do it the right way.
“He gets that. He sees his job, but he also has a good perspective. He sees the importance of the team and the importance of fighting for everything you can, but also knowing what your role is, too, when those roles are decided.
“I think people respect his work ethic and the way he goes about his business. There’s a reason the guy’s won so many games and been a part of so many wins and championships."