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‘It’ll still eat at him and you’ll never know’: The playoff struggles that led Jalen Hurts to his first NFL postseason | Jeff McLane

Hurts has had successes and failures everywhere, sometimes both in the same game, but he has proved resilient through it all. He was trained to be that way.

Jalen Hurts will be the youngest starting playoff quarterback in Eagles history when he takes the field Sunday against Tampa Bay. Years of on-field triumph and heartbreak through high school and college, and his resilience through all of it, have brought him to this moment.
Jalen Hurts will be the youngest starting playoff quarterback in Eagles history when he takes the field Sunday against Tampa Bay. Years of on-field triumph and heartbreak through high school and college, and his resilience through all of it, have brought him to this moment.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

When college recruiters visited Channelview High School to meet Jalen Hurts for the first time, his father and coach, Averion, would sometimes bring into his office the Fighting Falcons offensive line.

“You’d have this 5-[foot]-6 kid, 5-8 kid. We had one that was 6-foot at the time,” Channelview offensive coordinator Byron Henderson said. “And Averion would be like, ‘I want you to understand these are the guys that are blocking for him. So everything that he’s doing, I want you to see what he’s doing it behind.’”

Channelview, located just east of Houston, wasn’t a Texas 6A powerhouse when the elder Hurts took over the program in 2006. It hadn’t made the playoffs since 1993 and it took 10 more years before the Falcons finally did.

The coach got close with his eldest son, Averion Jr., but it would be Jalen, in his senior year, who led Channelview into the postseason for the first time in 22 years. He did so against substantial odds, as his father, in his peculiar way, demonstrated.

But Jalen Hurts never made excuses, according to Henderson. In fact, Channelview’s struggles only made the laser-focused young man that much more determined.

“The process was the important thing, and he’d tell his teammates, ‘Hey, let’s go out here and do it better than we did it before,’” said Bo Davis, the coach who recruited Hurts to Alabama. “I think he thrived on it. I don’t think the losing was a pitfall. He just pushed himself harder and the people around him harder to be successful.”

Henderson, also Channelview’s quarterbacks coach, Davis and others who were around Hurts in high school aren’t surprised he helped guide the Eagles to the playoffs in only his first full season as an NFL starter. They aren’t shocked he has rebounded from considerable setbacks in college and the pros, because they saw it firsthand.

When Channelview met powerhouse Manvel in the first round of a bi-district playoff game in 2015, few gave the program a chance. Manvel had around a dozen Division I recruits. Channelview had two, and one was Hurts, who committed to Alabama that June. He might have been the best player on the field, but it takes more than one in football.

Manvel scored the first 47 points and won going away, 71-21. The Mavericks had their share of dynamic moments, especially against an undersized opponent. But what stood out most about Hurts’ performance, coaches from both sides said, was his effort and the blow he delivered to a defender in the fourth quarter when the outcome was all but settled.

Asked on Wednesday what he learned about himself competing in his first playoff game, Hurts declined to answer the question.

“What are we getting at with this?” he said, before moving on to the next question.

Henderson said he knew where Hurts was coming from.

“It’ll still eat at him and you’ll never know,” Henderson said. “I’m not comparing him to Michael Jordan, but if you know anything about Michael Jordan, he uses everything as motivation. … It’s the same with Jalen. He feels if he takes a moment off, or a moment to reflect, then it’s going to deter him from moving forward.

“So he has to have those internal motivations to keep his fire lit to move forward. And I think that’s what those games do for him.”

Hurts’ sights are set solely on the wild-card playoff matchup Sunday at the Buccaneers. The Eagles aren’t anywhere near the underdog Channelview was six years ago, but Tampa comes in as an 8-½-point favorite with quarterback Tom Brady making his 46th start in the postseason.

The 23-year-old Hurts, who will be the youngest starting playoff quarterback in team history, may not have the 44-year-old Brady’s experience. But since his last high school game he played in the biggest “knockout” games at the collegiate level.

“I’ve been on some very big stages,” Hurts said. “I think all of those things have kind of helped me.”

» READ MORE: Why no one has more to gain or lose from Eagles-Bucs than Jalen Hurts | David Murphy

He had successes and failures, and sometimes both in the same game, but Hurts has proved resilient. He was trained to be that way. Averion Hurts coached his son hard to strengthen his mental toughness. He had him power-lift to make him strong enough to withstand the hits.

The former offensive lineman coached him the only way he knew how.

“He wanted Jalen to be tough,” said Davis, who first met Averion Hurts when they both coached at Houston-area schools. “And so he groomed him like an O-lineman that you would expect as a former O-lineman dad to do with his son.”

Henderson handled more of the particulars of playing quarterback. Hurts was taught to have a short memory. Don’t wallow in the last play, the last game, and the last season. He’s shown that same resiliency this year. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t remember.

“The process was the important thing...I think he thrived on it. I don’t think the losing was a pitfall. He just pushed himself harder and the people around him harder to be successful.”

Bo Davis, former Alabama assistant coach

When Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, his first game, against Houston, set up a rematch with former Manvel quarterback D’Eriq King. The Manvel defender he ran over, Deontay Anderson, was also a Cougar.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Hurts said then when asked about his last high school game.

The quarterbacks’ roles were reversed with the Sooners heavily favored. Houston never stood a chance. Oklahoma raced out to a 21-0 lead and won, 49-31, as Hurts accounted for more than 500 yards and six total touchdowns.

If Hurts was looking for further Manvel-related inspiration on Sunday, he can look across the field at Raymond James Stadium and see King’s backup, Kyle Trask, now the Bucs’ third-string quarterback.

» READ MORE: Eagles-Bucs: The beat writers' playoff predictions

Hurts may use his high school adversity as motivation, but he also knew he was destined for more.

“Jalen knew that he would be in the situation that he’s in this weekend going into this game against Tom Brady,” Henderson said. “He knew this in high school. He might not have been playing against Tom Brady, but he knew that he was going to be an NFL quarterback playing in the biggest games.”

Nothing affects the guy

Hurts became Channelview’s starter in his sophomore year. The Falcons went 1-9 that season. They went 7-4 the next year and upset nearby rival and Texas heavyweight, North Shore, 49-48, when Hurts tossed a 36-yard last-second touchdown.

The playoffs would have to wait another year, but the drought ended with Hurts carrying the team on his shoulders and fans flocking to see the Alabama recruit. Manvel, 37 miles away, knew plenty about the dual-threat quarterback.

“My main concern was him getting loose and running on us,” then-Manvel coach Kirk Martin said, “because he’s just so big and powerful.”

The Mavericks, though, had the athletes to box Hurts in: Power 5 prospects at each level of defense.

“We had some dudes,” Martin said.

The size advantage Manvel had up front was significant and Channelview struggled to move the ball on the ground. Hurts tossed two first-half interceptions. But he kept slinging and threw for 175 yards.

“Jalen was trying to do everything he could to win,” said Davis, who was in attendance, “but he just didn’t have enough people around him to help him succeed.”

Hurts also rushed 22 times for 122 yards and a touchdown, and on one of his last carries, he broke free into the secondary and down the sideline. Anderson, a safety, came over from the post.

“The kid must have thought Jalen was going out of bounds,” Henderson said, “and Jalen ran straight through him.”

Hurts just stood over Anderson.

“He lowered his shoulder,” Martin said.

There was disappointment, of course, but when the final whistle went off, Averion Hurts made the transition from coach to father.

“At that point, nothing needed to be said,” Henderson said. “His dad is one of the hardest people on him, even to this day. He got on him throughout the whole game, but being a coach as long as he has, you know you’re out-manned, and you know you can only expect one kid to do so much.”

» READ MORE: Lane Johnson’s journey from Kilgore College to the Eagles is ‘a testimony of perseverance’

A month later, Hurts was at Tuscaloosa already working out and in January he enrolled early. Alabama was the defending national champion and had won four of the last seven titles. Hurts, though, was unfazed and by the second game he won the starting job because, Davis said, “he won the players.”

He won games, too, 12 straight as Alabama advanced to the SEC championship game. Hurts made his share of rookie mistakes, but he never batted an eye, at least outwardly.

“With Coach [Nick] Saban, it used to drive him crazy,” Davis said. “He’d said, ‘Nothing affects the … guy.’ He’s like … armor. He throws an errant pass and he’s like, ‘OK, I’ll get it fixed. I know what I did wrong on it.’

“Most guys come in and they’re like, ‘Aw, [shoot].’”

Hurts wasn’t at his best in the conference title game and then in the national semifinal, but Alabama cruised in both games. In the final in Tampa, the Crimson Tide got into a shootout with Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The Tigers defense allowed few completed passes, but Hurts was undeterred, and his 30-yard rushing touchdown gave Alabama a three-point lead with 2 minutes left. It was more than enough time for Watson to drive Clemson to a touchdown and victory.

A year later, the Tide avenged the loss and beat the Tigers in the semifinals. Hurts’ passing inaccuracy caught up to him in the final against Georgia, however, and he was benched at the half for freshman Tua Tagovailoa. Alabama won in overtime.

“There was more going on than just play on the football field,” Henderson said. “In the game he got benched, I don’t think that he had all of the opportunities to showcase his talents as they did with Tua. I think Tua is a great quarterback, he’s a great talent. … But I can say all that did was fuel even more fire under Jalen.”

Tagovailoa remained the starter the next year, but when he injured his foot with 11 minutes left in the SEC championship game against the Bulldogs, Hurts stepped in and tossed and ran for touchdowns as Alabama rallied to win.

“It shows his character,” Eagles and former Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith said Thursday. “That’s just the type of guy he is. He isn’t going to run from any situation. He’s going to compete no matter what.”

But Tagovailoa returned for the playoffs. Clemson won convincingly in the final, but as Hurts knows as well as anyone, quarterbacks receive far too much credit or blame, especially in the postseason.

» READ MORE: Can Eagles’ Alabama trio of ‘winners’ make it happen in the NFL playoffs?

Nine days after the loss, Hurts, who wouldn’t have to forfeit a year of eligibility because he graduated early, transferred to Oklahoma.

Hurts became a better passer in Norman. The defense-deprived Big 12 helped, but he improved under coach Lincoln Riley. The Sooners beat Baylor in overtime of the conference championship game, but they ran into an LSU buzzsaw in the national semifinal and lost, 63-28.

Prepared for this moment

Averion Hurts, who still coaches Channelview, doesn’t do many interviews when his son is the subject. Jalen Hurts has also shied away from talking much about his relationship with his father, other than the “coach’s son” dynamic.

“He’s done his job, it’s time for others to take charge,” Henderson said of Averion. “But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t privately critique Jalen. He critiques him with his preparation and his thought-process, not the specifics of the quarterback position.”

Henderson and Davis credited Averion for Hurts’ unflappable demeanor. His mother, Pamela, also an educator, has influenced his diligence, as well. But Hurts is very much a product of Texas football and of Channelview’s struggles, the coaches said.

He has taken every slight, every setback and used it as motivation. Despite his father’s best efforts, Hurts had only a few Division I offers his junior season.

“It’s not like everybody was knocking down the door,” Henderson said. “Averion got coaches to come, but I’ve always said the perennial playoff teams are going to get the most attention.”

“That’s just the type of guy [Hurts] is. He isn’t going to run from any situation. He’s going to compete no matter what.”

DeVonta Smith, Eagles wide receiver and Jalen Hurts' former teammate at Alabama

Hurts’ stock began to rise during offseason showcases, though. Davis was brought in to recruit him because he previously coached at North Shore and knew Averion Hurts when he was at MacArthur High.

“I remembered Jalen watching his brother’s games,” said Davis, now the defensive line coach at Texas. “But I didn’t know he would grow into an athlete like that. He did.”

Hurts committed at an Elite 11 quarterback competition in Los Angeles in June 2015, choosing Alabama over Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Davis said he wasn’t concerned about his lack of playoff experience because, he said, “every game in Texas is like the playoffs.”

» READ MORE: 22 of the Eagles’ best playoff moments

Hurts prepared for every game as if the stakes were that high. Henderson recalled one time after practice, as Hurts was in the weight room working out, he started to pack up to head home to his family for a late dinner. Channelview’s upcoming opponent wasn’t considered very strong.

“I’m getting my stuff together, Jalen comes in my office and goes, ‘Where are you going? I wanted to watch more film,’” Henderson said. “I go, ‘Really, Jalen?’ Uh, OK, you want to watch, let’s go back and watch.’”

They stayed for another hour, according to the coach.

“Jalen helped set the culture here,” Henderson said. “We’ve only missed the playoffs once since he left. … It didn’t take long for the Eagles to get back, did it? Everything in his life has prepared him for this moment.

“From the time he was watching his oldest brother play here, to the time we spent in the back office when he was in high school, everything that has happened to him has prepared him for this moment. And I’m so excited.”

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