While Jalen Hurts is putting up monstrous numbers at Oklahoma, the NFL must notice how his developmental path mirrors current NFL star Dak Prescott’s.
The college football landscape changes quickly as player development can suddenly hasten with the right coaching staff and player work ethic. Not every player has the aptitude to take on mechanical refinements and apply them in-game, but those that do usually become quality NFL prospects.
This especially applies to quarterbacks such as Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. A national title-winning quarterback at Alabama in his first season, Hurts faced constant scrutiny until he was replaced by an elite recruit and passer in Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts’ lack of aggressiveness and consistency throwing the ball made him a weak link on an otherwise unstoppable force in 2016.
He was reliant on his feet and a friendly scheme in order to be as efficient as he was. Because Nick Saban hadn’t yet ordered his offense be modernized yet, we saw Hurts’ impact be mitigated. His output was impressive still, completing almost 63 percent of passes for 5,626 yards, 48 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in three years.
He decided to transfer to Oklahoma in wake of Baker Mayfield‘s and Kyler Murray‘s successful stops in Norman under the tutelage of Lincoln Riley. Riley helped both become top overall picks despite having ugly exits from their previous situations before Oklahoma. His scheme and ability to effectively tweak mechanical flaws make Riley the most desirable collegiate coach in years for NFL teams.
Hurts’ numbers have ballooned through six games with Riley and a deep cast of playmakers. He’s on pace for more than 3,500 yards, more than 35 passing touchdowns and a career-high rushing total over 1,200 yards. There’s good reason he’s been mentioned as a top-three Heisman candidate.
We’ll touch on the comparisons to Mayfield and Murray later to help highlight his usage and tendencies, but the progress Hurts has made from his sophomore season with Alabama to his senior season with Oklahoma is more like what we saw from Dak Prescott from his undergraduate years to senior season at Mississippi State.
Though there’s almost a direct comparison from Hurts’ Alabama tenure to Prescott’s career at Mississippi State, his level of play and refinement transcends the stats. The numbers he’s compiling at Oklahoma are almost incomparable to anyone because of the unique situation he’s benefiting from and contributing to.
This is where the accuracy and catchable ball data that I track comes in. Though schemes and caliber of playmakers help create easier throws, this method helps even the playing field by isolating the play of the quarterback. And these stats show very similar players from Prescott’s senior season and Hurts’ six games with Oklahoma.
We’re still working with a limited sample for Hurts and he’s yet to hit the meat of their schedule yet. But already with a third of the throws I charted for Prescott, he’s nearly identical with overall accuracy, accuracy past the line of scrimmage, against pressure, and nearly in the same range on conversion downs. Prescott had the profile of a projected starter, but even I underrated him as a third-rounder because I didn’t properly value how much he improved from a run-first passer early in his career into a comfortable pocket passer.
Not everything needs to be exact for this comparison to make sense. And that’s where the eye test and video breakdowns enter the fold. These two have similar pocket mannerisms from their collegiate days.
Prescott continued tightening his footwork in the NFL and that’s helped his deep ball become respectable. Hurts has faced a similar struggle throwing deep until this year because his base is too far apart, relying too much on his arm instead of his torso creating torque without compromising his accuracy.
Although there aren’t many examples of Hurts staying in the pocket and hitting tight windows yet, we can compare his ball placement in a congested pocket and his depth of steps when throwing forward. The above clip from this past week against Texas was one of his best plays. Pressure is nearing after a comfortable drop in play-action, and he hits CeeDee Lamb on the over route.
His process is important. He’s not able to step into the throw effectively because Lamb doesn’t emerge as an option until there’s a lineman barreling towards his chest. So he leans backward slightly to create the passing angle for his throw and uses touch to squeeze this pass into a tiny window.
He leads Lamb ever so slightly, but not too much or else the sideline looms. But Lamb is able to extend his arms and finish the play despite the defender right behind him.
This Dak throw isn’t exactly the same since he has a little more room to step into the throw, but it shows his accuracy when unable to fully reset his motion. Neither is incredibly accurate naturally; notice the lack of green boxes in the above comparison. But they have enough arm talent to whip a catchable ball out without hesitation and that’s what an NFL starter needs.
Their posture and gait are similar as well. Both are listed at 6’2″ and possess a thick frame in the 220-230-pound range. They’re quick when running but have good pace and posture when dropping back post-snap.
The balance inside the pocket is where Dak showed the most growth as a senior and again in the NFL. This is a plus for Hurts, who hasn’t played in the pocket nearly as often as Dan Mullen had Prescott in those situations. Coaches will look at how his motion shortened as a junior, crisper by the 2019 spring game with the Sooners, and is consistent as a senior.
His ability to self-improve and take coaching is critical in his draft stock. As-is, we just don’t have the sample size to be confident he’s an NFL starter. But Prescott had that exact sentiment about him as well, and he proved efficient and on the upswing instead of being a finished product.
The other area to compare is his performance against the recent Oklahoma quarterbacks. Though his raw numbers are on pace to look even better, his charted data isn’t. His poor play outside of the pocket, a surprise since Hurts has been solid on rollouts throughout his career, sunk his accuracy on short passes.
His rushing ability is a considerable plus, though his decision-making outside of the pocket on extended plays is mediocre. His turnover rate is creeping up after Riley announced he wanted Hurts to be more aggressive. He simply may not be the downfield passer Mayfield and Murray were.
He can still be effective and dangerous if his short passing ticks back upwards. His reads must move faster against man coverage than what we’ve seen thus far, or else this team will lose eventually. Both Mayfield and Murray struggled in that regard and still do in the NFL, and it’s partly why Oklahoma lost in the playoff with both.
Hurts isn’t them yet, so more growth is needed for the Sooners this year. But his longer-term prospects are trending the right way. He and Justin Herbert would be the best quarterbacks at the 2020 Senior Bowl if they both attend.
Both should and would benefit from the NFL coaching for one-week.
The Ringer’s Mallory Rubin confidently said on the Bill Simmons Podcast Hurts would be not only a first-round pick but possibly top-10. That seems misguided right now considering he’s not as consistent as his predecessors, nor as gifted as a passer. But a strong finish to the season and offseason cycle should solidify him as an early Day 2 pick, and maybe he sneaks into the late first.
That’s quite the difference from opinions on him even one-year ago, where he looked destined to start for a decent team with little chance of seeing the NFL, ala Missouri’s Kelly Bryant. Hurts deserves a massive amount of credit and has earned the benefit of any doubt about his work ethic and character.