ATLANTA — Jalen Hurts’ go-karting trip with Alabama teammates hit a wall because things “kinda got a little hectic.”
The team became surrounded by fans wanting pictures and autographs during a trip to Andretti Karting. One little kid dressed up as him for Halloween with pipe cleaners mimicking his long dreadlocks.
“That was cute to me,” Hurts said. No. 1 Alabama’s freshman quarterback has learned to deal with the trappings of being the starting quarterback for Nick Saban’s ‘Bama dynasty while learning to read defenses and master plays on the field. He’s led the Crimson Tide (13-0) into a playoff semifinals matchup with No. 4 Washington (12-1) in Saturday’s Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome.
The 18-year-old Hurts is trying to join Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway as the only freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national championship.
“I’m not the type of guy to just say no — no pictures, no autographs — because that’s disrespectful,” Hurts said. “You have to treat the fans the best way you can. But we have a security guard and I walk around with him when I know stuff is going to go down. And he said, ‘Look, Jalen I don’t have a problem at all with saying no.’ So I’m like, ‘It’s better coming from you than me.”’
Facing the Huskies defense is tough enough, but Hurts is also navigating life as a celebrity figure among Alabama fans.
Not that he’s complaining. By all accounts, the Southeastern Conference’s offensive player of the year has handled the off-the-field challenges as well as he has the ones on the field. He has started the last 12 games and so solidified the job that the team’s other three quarterbacks are transferring after or, in Blake Barnett’s case, during the season. So having to wear a hoodie around Tuscaloosa is a small price to pay, even if sometimes people still come up and tell him: “You can’t hide.”
“I mean, it’s my lifestyle now,” Hurts said. “I’m kinda getting used to it. It is what it is. I always embrace it, and here I am trying to embrace it.”
His teammates and coaches embraced him quickly. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin watched him throw at Channelview High School and says he came back telling Saban: “Coach, I think this guy’s a first-round draft pick.” Tight end O.J. Howard recalls watching Hurts talking to a strength coach on the sidelines during fall camp after throwing an interception — and then coming right back and firing a touchdown pass.
“That’s when we found out he was just so composed, he didn’t let it rattle him or anything,” Howard said. “He said, ‘I’m going to bounce back. I’m good.”’
That, Howard said, is “when I thought I knew he was going to be the quarterback.”
Hurts, who played for his father in high school, has already had the most prolific rushing season of any Alabama QB, with 841 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s also passed for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions. But he has failed to reach 175 passing yards in five of the Tide’s last seven games. Washington’s defense has picked apart more seasoned passers and leads the nation with 33 forced turnovers.
“If you get pressure on him he makes not the greatest decisions,” Huskies cornerback Sidney Jones said. “But when he has time to set his feet he looks like a great quarterback.” Linebacker Keishawn Bierria calls Hurts a “super athletic” playmaker who benefits from a terrific supporting cast.
The Huskies are hoping that they can benefit from his youth, even if Hurts does have 12 starts under his belt.
“You always want to try to get inside his head and rattle him,” Bierria said. “But he has a great team surrounding him. It might be a little difficult but that’s our goal.”
This time, there won’t be a security guard to fend them off.