NORMAN, Okla. — It might not be a bad idea for Lincoln Riley to rent a Manhattan apartment.
Given how frequently he travels to New York, with a Heisman Trophy quarterback in tow, it just might make life a little easier.
First came Baker Mayfield, then Kyler Murray, and now comes Jalen Hurts, who immediately put himself in the conversation for the sport’s most iconic hardware with a near-flawless debut Sunday in the Sooners’ 49-31 victory over Houston.
Yes, it’s way too early to declare a Heisman winner and yes, we know Houston’s defense isn’t exactly the ’85 Bears, but the Sooners’ and Riley’s recent history make the possibility too obvious to overlook. It appears another huge season is on deck for an Oklahoma quarterback.
Honestly, we should have seen this coming. In three-plus hours, Hurts reminded us why he was a big deal in the first place. Lest we forget, Hurts was good enough to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman, go 26-2 as a starter and lead Alabama to the College Football Playoff National Championship in consecutive seasons.
Coming into this season, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa have been at the forefront of national quarterback talk, and deservedly so. But just because Hurts was supplanted by Tagovailoa doesn’t mean he isn’t a great quarterback.
“I’d say I was in a situation or a position where I’m back where I’m supposed to be,” Hurts said Sunday after his dazzling, six-touchdown performance. “I can’t sit here and say I ain’t done it before.”
He’s right. Since Tagovailoa replaced him in the national title game victory over Georgia following the 2017 season, Hurts has been what Riley called “patiently eager” for his chance to get back to this point: quarterbacking a powerhouse program. Since arriving in Norman, he has feverishly prepared for this opportunity. He worked hard, learned the offense and meshed with his new teammates so well that they voted him a captain.
“Just from the get-go when he got here, he was one of those guys he could lead by example really well,” senior center Creed Humphrey said. “He knew how to talk to the team if things weren’t going quite so well, during the spring, during the winter, workouts, spring ball and everything.”
Riley said he has been thrilled with how Hurts took to his version of the Air Raid. It’s not something Hurts is unfamiliar with: His father, Channelview (Texas) High School coach Averion Hurts, said Jalen ran that style of offense as a prep player.
Jalen Hurts throws three touchdowns and rushes for three more in Oklahoma’s win vs. Houston.
“He’s learned our stuff,” Riley said. “But more importantly, he’s gotten more and more committed to our stuff. It’s one thing learning it and being able to write it on a greaseboard, and another being able to go execute it and trust it in front of a lot of people.”
And Riley, perhaps the best pure playcaller in the sport, has run a master class on capitalizing on his quarterback’s skills. He did it with Mayfield and Murray, and he showed it off Sunday with Hurts.
👀👀How impressive was @jalenhurts last night for the @OU_football offense?!?!? Lincoln Riley greasing up some goodies for his new QB-some goodies! No longe that R-P-O-how about an P-R-O.. @soonergridiron @soonerfootball @gabeikard @getupespn pic.twitter.com/kXMIW3wBlq
— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 2, 2019
Hurts, an established dual threat, used his feet with great success, rushing for 176 yards and three touchdowns. Most of his 16 carries weren’t designed, however; Riley said there were only a handful of those called. Hurts improvised the rest based on the situation.
“He gives you that threat, different, but in a similar way to Kyler did, where if they cover ’em really good, that can be our best offense,” Riley said. “I just thought he kinda took what was there the whole night.”
For those critical of his passing in the past, Hurts was near perfect Sunday: 20 of 23 for 332 yards and three more scores.
“I’ve said it before, I think the reality is I’m not the same player I was as an 18-year-old freshman, a 19-year-old sophomore,” Hurts said.
He’s not. He’s much better than he was then, thanks to a lot of work, growth and some help from Riley, a renowned quarterback guru who unleashed him on Sunday.
After the win, as he met with the media, Hurts kept a commanding yet understated presence. At one point, after fielding roughly a dozen questions, he shook his head disapprovingly. “All of this Jalen, me stuff …” he trailed off as he waved his hands. “We gotta take those steps. This whole team, you know?”
His thoughtful personality showed at other times:
“God has put me in some crazy, unprecedented situations, but it ain’t nothing that I can’t handle.”
“I think, just this whole unprecedented situation, playing at a school like Alabama and playing at a school like Oklahoma. Ain’t many people in the world that can say they’ve done that.”
“The story isn’t over. I mean, it’s never over. It ends when I die (chuckles). I hope that don’t come any time soon.”
Hurts is out to prove something. “He played with a chip on, and he wants everyone to know that he still has it,” receiver CeeDee Lamb said. Hurts’ father called the journey “hard,” but said Jalen is “built for this.” Riley said leading up to his debut, he could sense Hurts’ emotion as he reflected on his path. This is just the start.
Jalen Hurts’ story continues. Perhaps there will be a chapter in New York.