The Journey of Jalen Hurts: A Phenom’s Résumé and an Underdog’s Story


Mike Locksley remembers the moment he first began to wonder what, exactly, he should make of Jalen Hurts. It was spring in Alabama, warm but not yet oppressive, the morning of a practice in March 2016. Locksley had just arrived in Tuscaloosa as an offensive analyst, “one of the assistants to the assistants,” he says.

Locksley, now the head coach at Maryland, had spent many of his early weeks on the job in the quarterback room, supporting then offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The room was stacked. The Tide had Blake Barnett, a five-star recruit and a redshirt freshman, plus Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell, both top-100 recruits with multiple years in the program.

And then there was Hurts. An early enrollee, he wasn’t even 18 years old yet. He was quiet but watchful, with long braids and an intense stare. Hurts had been a talented enough prospect to earn a scholarship from Alabama, but he ranked no. 192 in his class, per the 247Sports composite, far lower than the more experienced players in the room. Already, though, Locksley had noticed a fierce hunger for improvement in Hurts, an almost monastic devotion to the game.

On this day, as they walked off the practice field, Locksley spoke to Hurts about what he needed to work on and what he was already doing well. At one point, Locksley says now, Hurts looked toward the three quarterbacks who’d entered spring ball ahead of him on the depth chart.

“I’m gonna make every one of them transfer,” Locksley remembers Hurts saying.

Locksley couldn’t help but smile, taken aback. “I’m thinking to myself,” says Locksley, “‘This kid has got a lot of the right kind of confidence, or he’s just cocky as hell.’”

Nearly seven years later, Hurts has made two college football national championship games. He’s been benched in favor of an even younger and shinier quarterback prospect, Tua Tagovailoa. He’s transferred to an Oklahoma program where he put up numbers so gaudy they made him a Heisman finalist. He’s been drafted in the second round by an Eagles team with incumbent quarterback Carson Wentz already in place, only to send that quarterback packing too. He’s seen fans clamor for his benching in favor of backup Gardner Minshew, who’s most famous for his mustache. And finally, he has arrived here, as an NFL MVP candidate and one of the youngest quarterbacks ever to lead his team to a Super Bowl. Oh, and he did, indeed, cause all three of those Alabama quarterbacks to transfer.

Along the way, reporters have often asked Hurts to reflect on his journey, a request he has steadfastly refused. “I don’t think it’s a time for reflection,” Hurts said at a press conference this week in Arizona, where the top-seeded Eagles will face the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs. “The journey is far from over.”

He’s right, of course. Hurts is still too young to rent a car but is preparing for the biggest game of his life. He can wait a while before entering the I-remember-when phase of his career. But when people who’ve crossed paths with Hurts along the way—in his hometown of Houston, at Alabama, and at Oklahoma—describe their memories of Hurts, a couple of consistent themes emerge. First, they recall a preternatural sense of calm, a quiet confidence that carries him through every practice, meeting, and game. Second, they recall a relentless hunger for improvement that has led to him steadily getting better at every stop.

Hurts has the story of an underdog but the résumé of a phenom and the mentality of a coach’s kid with the physicality of an athletic unicorn. He grew up in Houston, learning football from his father, Averion, his head coach at Channelview High School. “I think there’s a different journey you go through when you’re a coach’s kid,” Hurts said at his press conference this week. “I think you act with the natural love for the game like I have. I love this game.”

D.J. Mann coached Crosby High School, just 10 miles away, and he distinctly remembers the first time he faced Hurts in seven-on-seven. “He was a freak,” Mann says. But it wasn’t Hurts’s speed or strength that jumped out in the moment. In seven-on-seven, the quarterback isn’t allowed to run. Instead, Mann remembers a 30-yard back shoulder pass that hit a receiver in stride as he streaked down the sideline. “One of the best throws I’ve ever seen on the high school level.”

Over the course of Hurts’s career, Mann would run into him often. “You see him at seven-on-seven making all these throws,” Mann says, “and then at a track meet on Friday, he’s leaving everyone in the dust. Then on Saturday, he’s at a powerlifting meet, and he’s out-lifting guys a lot bigger than him.” Hurts was considered a high-major prospect, but in the world of Texas high school football, he was just one good prospect among many. The 247Sports composite rankings placed him as the 20th best recruit in the state. “We all slept on him a little,” says Mike Roach, who covers University of Texas recruiting for 247. “It’s clear he should have been higher.”

Alabama, though, saw enough in Hurts to offer him a scholarship fairly early in the recruiting process. “They went after him hard,” says Roach. “That should have been enough for people to take notice. … He hit all the markers: powerlifter, track star, coach’s son. That’s the total package.”

Hurts arrived at Alabama surrounded by those older quarterbacks, and he watched as, one by one, all three of them left. Hurts replaced Barnett on the third drive of the season opener against USC and led the Tide to a 52-6 win. By the end of September, Barnett had transferred. Bateman and Cornwell stuck around as backups for the rest of the season, but by the next spring, they were gone too.

Montana Murphy was a walk-on quarterback who sat on the edges of the room, watching as Hurts sent the older quarterbacks packing. “With that position, having all the praise and everything that comes with it, usually it’s not someone so quiet,” Murphy says. “But with Jalen, it was this calm and quiet confidence that you just felt any time you were around him.”

Hurts passed for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 954 yards and 13 more scores, winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman. “That first year,” says Murphy, “he relied on his physique and his physical power. He is a physically dominant human being.”

Again, here was a powerlifter and sprinter playing a position known for neither. Hurts found cracks in defenses and slithered through them, sometimes to buy time for downfield passes, but often to take off and run. He powered through tackles like a tailback, bowling over defenders unaccustomed to meeting a QB with that much power. But that alone would not elevate Hurts to the level he wanted—at the college level or in the pros. And he knew it. “He felt like he was behind other guys,” Locksley says. Hurts hadn’t grown up with a personal quarterback coach, the way so many of the top prospects now do. His dad had trained him: an excellent high school coach, but not the kind of quarterback specialist that flies around the country training NFL and college and elite high school QBs. “He didn’t have that luxury,” says Locksley.

So, to catch up, Hurts dedicated himself to becoming a pain in his coaches’ asses. “He was the biggest nag,” says Murphy, who arrived at Alabama with Hurts but later transitioned into a student assistant role after injuries ended his playing career. “He was the guy saying, ‘Hey, coach, can we get in extra film? Extra this? Extra that? He never left the facility. He didn’t have a social life. He just didn’t care. It was all about learning that offense as quickly as possible.”

A year after Hurts forced Alabama’s three blue-chip quarterbacks to transfer, a freshman arrived on campus with the talent to do that to him. Tua Tagovailoa was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback recruit in the nation. Those kinds of prospects do not show up at college programs expecting to sit on the bench.

Hurts held onto the starting job, but whenever Alabama went up by a few dozen points and Tagovailoa came in off the bench, it was clear that Hurts’s backup threw one of the prettiest balls in recent college football history. Tagovailoa evaded tacklers and delivered dimes to all zones of the field, immediately proving himself worthy of every ounce of recruiting hype he’d received. Hurts, meanwhile, was still developing as a passer.

For Locksley, though, Hurts’s potential as a passer was clear from the start. “It’s a tremendous myth that he doesn’t throw it well,” says Locksley. “Going back to Elite 11, he always threw a pretty ball, a tight spiral. His spatial awareness on the deep ball is excellent. The intermediate game, he just had to improve because of his knowledge of defensive structure. Over time, he’s done that.”

No longer the quiet freshman, Hurts took on a leadership role as a multiyear starter. “At that position, you have to be a vocal leader,” says Murphy. “When he was young, he didn’t really have that voice. But when he would speak, he would never demand anything from you that he wasn’t already doing. He wouldn’t ask you to give anything that he wasn’t giving. People respected the hell out of it.”

By now, the story of how Hurts’s 2017 season ended has found its place in football lore. Alabama reached the national championship game against Georgia, and facing the best defense he’d seen all season, Hurts struggled. The Tide entered halftime down 13-0, and Nick Saban benched Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa, who brought Bama back for a 26-23 victory, winning the game by hitting DeVonta Smith streaking down the sideline for a touchdown in overtime as Hurts watched from the sideline.

Entering Hurts’s junior year, Saban declared the competition wide open. Entering the season, though, Saban called Hurts into his office and gave him the news. Tagovailoa would be the starter. Hurts would enter the season coming off the bench. “He came into my office in tears,” Locksley says. “He was asking, ‘What do I do now? I’m 26-2 [as a starter]. I’ve been the guy here. What do I do?’”

Locksley, then offensive coordinator, had been heavily involved in the decision to go with Tagovailoa. But as he sat with the young man who’d first arrived on campus seven months before his 18th birthday, whose unshakable confidence had stunned Locksley that spring afternoon when they’d walked together off the practice field and who now sat in tears, Locksley didn’t know what to say. “I didn’t have any answers for him,” Locksley says. “I just told him I don’t know why these things happen, but at some point, you’ll be able to use these experiences. The world has a way of correcting itself.”

Hurts stayed. Locksley says Saban promised him that Alabama would give him significant reps, that they would continue to develop him in preparation for the NFL. “It was a weird dynamic,” says Murphy. “This guy took Alabama to back-to-back national title games. And now you’re the backup to a true sophomore? He was pissed off.” Both Murphy and Locksley insist that Hurts never took out his frustration on Tagovailoa, that he supported him and every other teammate exactly as they hoped he would. “He knew how great Tua was,” says Murphy. “But he knew how great he was too.”

Locksley remembers riding the bus to the 2018 SEC championship game in Atlanta, where the Tide were set to play Georgia in the same stadium where Tagovailoa had come off the bench to lead them to victory just 11 months before. Hurts sat next to Locksley. “What if a role reversal happens?” Locksley remembers him asking. Maybe Hurts would have to lead the Tide to a win. Locksley recalls Hurts’s answer: “I’ll be ready.”

Sure enough, Tagovailoa struggled, and Alabama fell down 28-14 before an injury forced Tagovailoa out of the game with just over 11 minutes left. Hurts came in off the bench, completing seven of nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown to bring Alabama back for the win.

“It was almost like he was a fortune teller,” says Locksley. “He called it.”

Connor McGinnis arrived at Oklahoma as a three-star preferred walk-on who’d dreamed of playing for the Sooners, hoping that if he put his head down and worked as hard as he possibly could, someday he might lead his home-state team as its starting QB. “Then I saw Baker [Mayfield] throw and Kyler [Murray] throw,” McGinnis says, “and I realized pretty quickly that my quarterback days were numbered.” McGinnis remained in the quarterback room but put his energy into special teams, becoming the Sooners’ holder and earning a scholarship by his senior year. And even after Mayfield won a Heisman, Murray won a Heisman, and both were drafted no. 1 overall, McGinnis quickly realized that the next quarterback at Oklahoma would live up to the standard set by the previous two.

“The first few weeks or days after Jalen got here,” McGinnis says, “you could just tell he carried himself in a way that was different than anybody else.” Mayfield had been “the high-strung, vocal, in-your-face, trash-talking leader.” Murray had been a bit quieter but let his arm and leg talent serve as evidence of his inner swag. Hurts, though, seemed to fit every cliché of a quarterback from Alabama. “He didn’t want to hear about the ‘rat poison,’” says McGinnis. “He was calm, cool, collected. ‘No matter what happens, I’ll give my hundred percent.’”

Despite leading that comeback in the SEC championship game, Hurts remained behind Tagovailoa. He graduated from Alabama with one more year of eligibility left, and Hurts wanted to play. Out in Norman, there was a head coach, Lincoln Riley, who’d become famous for turning transfer QBs into Heisman-winning stars. After a brief recruitment, Hurts decided to transfer to Oklahoma. “Jalen got immediate respect,” says Bill Bedenbaugh, then the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and now the Sooners’ offensive line coach. “I’m sure he was a leader there, but he was the guy here.”

Hurts understood what was required to demand respect. Step one: Be extremely talented. Which, done. Step two: Outwork everyone around you, which seems to have come naturally to Hurts from a very early age. “He was gonna work harder than anybody,” says Bedenbaugh. “That was a given. So he was gonna keep that respect.”

McGinnis remembers feeling awed by Hurts’s physicality. “He had an ability to pick up first downs on short yardage,” McGinnis says, “that maybe Kyler or Baker may not have been able to get.” In the weight room, Hurts showed what had made him a standout high school powerlifter. There’s a video of him squatting 600 pounds, with teammates screaming as they surround him, that will make you want to locate and smash yourself through the nearest concrete wall. “He was lifting as much as our linemen,” McGinnis says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

In Hurts, Oklahoma gained the presence of a quarterback who’d twice scaled college football’s greatest heights. In Oklahoma, Hurts gained the opportunity to sling the football all around the field, on any down, with any distance. “This was the high-flying, gunslinging, west-Texas Big 12,” says McGinnis. “We gave him more freedom and opportunity than he’d probably ever had before.”

That November, Oklahoma fell down 28-3 on the road at Baylor. At halftime, Hurts jumped out of his seat, made his rounds through the locker room, and worked to instill the belief that, soon, Oklahoma would come back. “When a guy that doesn’t speak a ton says just a little bit, that captures your attention,” says McGinnis. “It’s really about body language. You can tell when a guy is defeated and when a guy still has it. Jalen never lets his body language show defeat.” In the second half, Hurts led Oklahoma to a furious, playoff-berth-preserving comeback and a 34-31 win.

DeVonta Smith was a freshman at Alabama back in 2017, when he caught the game-winning touchdown to win the national championship that year. On Sunday, he’ll line up with Hurts as the two try to win another title together, this time on an even greater stage. “I’ve been playing in games like this all my life,” Smith said in a press conference this week. Maybe not exactly like this, but still, for him and Hurts, the stakes of Sunday’s contest will feel familiar.

When Philly drafted Hurts in the second round of the 2020 NFL draft, he arrived to a team that already had a former no. 2 overall pick at quarterback, Carson Wentz. That December, then coach Doug Pederson benched a struggling Wentz in favor of Hurts, and the rookie Hurts helped the Eagles break a four-game losing streak and became the first quarterback in NFL history to run for 100 yards and throw a touchdown pass in his first career start. Much like the Alabama quarterbacks had transferred all those years ago, Wentz requested a trade that offseason, and the Eagles obliged, sending him to Indianapolis. Philadelphia handed Hurts the reins in 2021, and though the Eagles reached the playoffs, Hurts remained saddled with the characterization from fans and analysts that he didn’t have the polish needed as a passer to take one of the league’s most talented rosters beyond the early rounds of the postseason. Still, the Eagles’ front office doubled down on building the offense around Hurts entering the 2022 season, keeping him as the starter and acquiring one of the game’s elite receivers by trading a first-round pick to the Titans for A.J. Brown.

Smith, whom Brown joined to form one of the league’s most potent wide receiver duos, has watched as Hurts has steadily grown as a quarterback. Though they split up when Hurts left for Oklahoma, they reunited in 2021, when Philly drafted Smith 10th overall after he won the Heisman at Alabama in 2020. This season, at the helm of an offense loaded with skill talent and powered by a dominant line, Hurts has gone 16-1 as a starter, while the Eagles lost both games he missed with a shoulder injury, and he grew into one of the league’s top-performing quarterbacks, finishing as Pro Football Focus’s fifth-highest-graded QB. “You definitely see the improvement,” Smith told media ahead of the Super Bowl.

In Locksley’s eyes, Hurts always had the passing ability needed to thrive at this level. He just needed time to deepen his understanding of coverages and to learn how to attack. “Now he’s started to be able to see coverage and understand defensive structure,” Locksley says. That, he adds, allows Hurts to “throw the ball with more anticipation. He doesn’t have to wait for the guy to be open.”

Smith can trace that same quiet confidence that Locksley and Murphy and so many others saw back to his and Hurts’s time together at Alabama. He’s watched it grow, though, turning into something louder, more expressive of Hurts’s belief in his teammates and himself. “The guy has always had the confidence that he’s had,” Smith said. “But it’s just another level now. The swagger he plays with, just going out there knowing that he’s that guy.”

Last year, Hurts sat at home watching two old SEC foes, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, starring as a quarterback-receiver duo in the Super Bowl. He reached out to Smith. “We see what they did,” Smith remembered Hurts saying. “We can do that too.” Now, 12 months later, they’ll have that chance.

As Locksley prepares to watch his old protégé play for immortality on Sunday, he thinks back to that 17-year-old kid: confident or cocky, Locksley wasn’t quite sure. He knew Hurts possessed physical gifts few quarterbacks could dream of. And he saw a desire in him that set him apart from others in the room. He didn’t know where all of that would eventually take Hurts. But he would not have been shocked if told that it would one day lead Hurts here.

“Nothing about this is surprising,” says Locksley. “This is just what happens when you have the talent he has and put in the work he puts in. This is where it gets you.”