Is Jalen Hurts a different quarterback in Year 2 at Alabama?

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There’s a point where we have to accept that Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is what he is.

It went largely unnoticed, but coach Nick Saban hinted at that notion during a mini-rant earlier this season that started with a critique of the media and its job to supposedly "create news." Asked whether the weekly dissection of his quarterback’s growth as a passer was too much, Saban called the whole matter overblown. He pointed toward the Fresno State game, in which Hurts rushed for 154 yards and threw for 128, and essentially asked, "What more could you want?"

“It’s our job to try to help our guys play winning football,” Saban said. “I think different players play winning football in different ways.”

Maybe Saban’s shot at the media distracted from the larger point, but there it was, in plain view: After an offseason in which he lamented how he and former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin failed to develop Hurts as a passer last season, Saban was no longer harping on how Hurts must do a better job of remaining in the pocket or throwing the ball downfield.

In so many words, Saban said that Hurts was his own breed -- a different quarterback playing the position a different way.

“If you want to be critical of a guy for rushing 154 yards and think he should not do that so he can pass more, then that’s up to you,” Saban said. “You can do that if you want. But we did pass for 192 yards [Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa passed for 64 yards in addition to Hurts' 128] and I think that’s the kind of balance that we want to create. We’re going to continue to try to help our players play to their strengths and work on any weakness that they have so that they can do better on those things.

"I don’t think this is any more overblown than a lot of other things you do, if you want to know the truth about it."

At the midway point of the regular season, it would be unfair to call Hurts anything other than a success, maybe even an All-America candidate. He has led Alabama to an undefeated record and the No. 1 ranking. He has scored 12 touchdowns and hasn’t turned the ball over yet.

But there are nagging questions: Is Hurts better than he was as a freshman? And more importantly, has he improved enough as a passer to overcome the late-season slide that culminated in a last-second loss to Clemson in the national championship? On the one hand, he has executed the offense beautifully. On the other hand, he’s ranked 96th nationally in passing yards per game and ranks 13th out of 14 SEC quarterbacks in the average distance of his passes (air yards).

Against an underwhelming SEC, it’s not easy to judge his progress. Through six games, he has faced just one defense ranked in the top 25 nationally, and that was a Fresno State team which gave up 48 points against its only other Power 5 opponent, Washington.

Hurts can’t control that, of course. It’s simply a caveat that needs to be stated before any further analysis.

Anecdotally, especially among players and coaches, there’s little doubt Hurts has improved. You can see he is more comfortable in the pocket and is doing a better job keeping his eyes downfield. Cam Sims, a veteran receiver, said Hurts is trusting his teammates more. Tight end Hale Hentges said Hurts has "taken control of our offense," whether that’s commanding the line of scrimmage or managing the clock. Hentges told reporters Hurts has steadily improved at being a complete quarterback.

Prior to the Texas A&M game, Saban said he was "pleased" with Hurts’ progress and the balance of the offense as a whole under new coordinator Brian Daboll. The Tide wanted to do a better job of developing the passing game, and Saban believes they’ve done that. Thinking back to the win over Ole Miss, Saban remembered two passes in particular -- one to Robert Foster and another to Henry Ruggs III -- in which Hurts scrambled, kept his eyes downfield and found an open receiver, rather than tucking the ball and running.

“But I think from a dropback standpoint and a timing standpoint, he missed a few throws in the game,” Saban said. “But at the same time, we're in the right place, making the reads, we're getting the balls out of our hands, and we also made some really good throws in the game."

Again, it’s difficult to be critical of anyone leading an offense to 41.83 points per game, no matter the opponents. Among Power 5 teams, only Ohio State and Oregon have scored more touchdowns than Alabama.

But if the focus is getting Hurts in a better place as a passer in time for the stretch run against defenses that might limit his mobility, the numbers aren’t convincing. Comparing his first six games last season to now, he has thrown for 372 fewer yards and two fewer touchdowns. His interceptions are down from two to zero, but his completion percentage has dipped slightly (0.7 percent).

The subject of short versus downfield passing -- a huge talking point this offseason -- is a mixed bag. On the whole, Hurts has completed eight fewer passes of 20-plus yards than he did through this point last season. But his attempts directed at or behind the line of scrimmage have dropped from 43.2 percent to 32.4, while his attempts directed 5 or more yards downfield have risen from 46.6 percent to 56.8.

It’s a relatively small increase, but the average length of his passes has gone up from 7.22 yards to 8.28.

More encouraging news: Hurts is spreading the ball around. At this point last season, only five players had caught touchdown passes. Now that number is seven, with the tight ends more consistently involved in the passing game.

On the whole, though, if you expected Hurts to become more of a passer and less of a running quarterback, the numbers don’t bear that out. He has actually run seven more times than he did at this point last season -- the silver lining being he’s more effective, rushing for 517 yards versus 296 at this point a year ago.

Again and again, Saban returns to the term “efficiency” when talking about Hurts. It’s his ultimate goal for any quarterback. And in that respect, Hurts is thriving, ranking fourth in Total QBR.

Five rushing touchdowns help, obviously. In terms of pure passing efficiency, Hurts ranks 33rd. It’s not a bad number, but he's no Peyton Manning, either.

And that’s the point, isn't it? Because for as much as Hurts might becoming more comfortable in the pocket and throwing downfield, he’s still an athlete who is dangerous on the run. In the NFL that might be a cause for concern, but it’s a weapon in college that shouldn't be brushed aside.

Just a sophomore, Hurts has plenty of room to grow. But to expect wholesale changes in his identity as a quarterback is foolish. At the end of the day, he’s one of the best playmakers in college football and that should be enough. Alabama is winning big, the offense is thriving and the rest is simply overblown.