Horning: From pressure to expectation, Hurts' Sooner story entirely unique

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts throws a pass during practice Monday at the Al Velie Rugby Complex.

NORMAN — Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts’ soaking-wet undershirt was stretched over his back as he carried his shoulder pads. The OU rugby fields were empty by the time he walked off them.

It’s been a common sight lately.

Hurts seemingly always leaves practice last. In three media availabilities since OU began practice Saturday, he’s been the final holdout each time.

During a twilight practice Tuesday, he stayed late to work with Mykel Jones. After Jones left the vicinity, Hurts lingered behind and caught up to him later in the parking lot. It was mostly empty as the receiver’s Jeep drove them both away through the muggy night air.

Some observers are perplexed as to why Lincoln Riley hasn’t already named Hurts his starting quarterback, if for no other reason than the Alabama transfer seems like the obvious choice over redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai and freshman Spencer Rattler.

But the process doesn’t seem to bother Hurts. If anything, he’s embraced it.

“He’s a learner. He comes in and he never knows enough,” OU receiver CeeDee Lamb said. “For him it’s always, ‘What do I have to do on this? What are you doing?’ A guy like that, you can’t do nothing but help. Me, I’m gonna help him out.”

Maybe it’s because this isn’t a foreign process to Hurts.

This marks his third QB competition in college in four years, which seems strange for a player who owns a 26-2 record as a starter. But officially, he has never been won a starting job in the preseason, though granted, that’s not common practice for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.

A rundown of Hurts’ preseasons at Alabama reveals just what he’s been through.

In 2016, he competed against three candidates — among them former Norman North star David Cornwell — but didn’t start the Crimson Tide’s season opener against USC. Instead, Blake Barnett took the field for the first two series.

Hurts entered on the third series and entrenched himself at the position the rest of the year, despite fumbling on his first career snap. Some wonder if Saban had played coy about Hurts’ ability during lead-up to the opener, but regardless, Hurts hadn’t publicly won the job until after fall camp.

Hurts entered 2017 with less pressure as the incumbent starter, though it was clear Tua Tagovailoa was a premium talent behind him. It wasn’t until Tagovailoa replaced him during the 2017 title game and ignited Alabama’s offense in a thrilling victory over Georgia that Hurts’ long-term status in Tuscaloosa was in jeopardy.

Still, for all practical purposes, the Crimson Tide job was open for competition the following August, despite Tagovailoa being the frontrunner. He ultimately won it and started the 2018 season opener, making Hurts 1 for 3 in fall camp QB battles during college.

Now a senior, he's taking what figures to be his last one as seriously as any.

“You can understand with these quarterbacks, you get one shot at this,” said Michael Casagrande, an AL.com beat writer who has spent 10 seasons covering Alabama football, including the entire Hurts era. “You get one shot at a college career, and you can make or break a career in the pros based on how things go in college. So there’s a lot of pressure to succeed.”

Knowing how to navigate that stress could be Hurts’ biggest advantage this August. Mordecai and Rattler are less experienced in a preseason camp of this magnitude.

Hurts definitely isn’t taking any chances.

Asked about his summer, he described it this way: “Definitely lot of late nights, early mornings.”

The first to arrive and last to leave.

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