By Arnie Leshin
The praise parade was underway by everyone but Jalen Hurts.
The Oklahoma senior quarterback, a transfer from Alabama, had just made a spectacular debut in Sunday’s season-opener against visiting Houston. With last year’s Heisman Trophy winner and Player of the Year Kyler Murray on the Sooner sideline, Hurts made quite a statement.
He totaled 508 yards, 332 through the air, ran for 176, threw three touchdown passes and ran in three of his own. He was good on 21 of 24 pass attempts. He passed short, he passed long, in the pocket, and ran the ball with relative ease. In the first half, he completed 13 of 15 attempts for 176 yards and ran for 128 yards to account for a 21-10 halftime lead.
But upon being interviewed not long after the 49-31 final score before a joyful 84,534 Boomer Sooner fans, he never smiled, never praised his performance, was totally serious, very focused, just kept the emphasis on his team’s effort.
“Well,” he said, “We have a lot of work to do. We played sloppy at times, and need to play better football. There is lots of room for improvement.”
From the Houston area, he did admit he was happy to be here, that he belonged here, and is not the same player he was as an 18-year-old starting quarterback at Alabama as the first freshman to start under head coach Nick Saban. He added that he’s not the same player he was as a 19-year-old sophomore.
And he made his point, for with the Crimson Tide he didn’t have happy feet, didn’t make his mark running the option, but did have a strong arm and good game management.
Sunday, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hurts was a different player. From the opening possession, he stunned the Cougar defense by carrying it past them, running right, running left, even bolting over the middle. When he went to the air, he was overly confident in finding several different receivers with pin-point throws.
Said Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley: “He did a great job of managing the offense, checked out the defense and sat back in the pocket deciding his next play, and Houston had no answers. He looked like Baker (Mayfield) finding targets, and Kylee running with the ball. He showed quickness and speed.”
On one of his last plays late in the game, he delayed, than tried to find space up the middle, and fumbled, his only mistake. His versatility brought 508 total yards to the delight of the crowd that spent the last two season praising, applauding Mayfield and Murray, who dressed in a red and white T-shirt a week before starting at quarterback for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
Hurts did mention that the team made some good plays, that he was pleased by his offensive line and his receivers. He added that he was seldom rushed by the defense, and was able to put the option into play successfully.
Next Saturday night, Oklahoma hits the road to play at South Dakota, and after Hurts told of how much better it can play, it might be quite a show that the Big 12 favorite, 4th ranked Sooners will bring.
As a freshman at Alabama, he was SEC Player of the Year. He remained the starter through a strong sophomore campaign, but as a junior he was replaced at halftime in the college playoffs against Georgia by highly rated freshman Tua Tagvailoa and spent his senior year on the sidelines after winning 26 of 28 times as a starter.
What followed was one of the most talked-about stories in the college ranks as he announced he was transferring to Oklahoma much to the delight of Lincoln Riley. He had no problem becoming the starter and he was also selected as one of the team captains.
His statistics of more than 300 yards passing and more than 150 yards rushing had not occurred since the Johnny Manzel days 15 years ago. After Hurts departed in the fourth quarter, the Sooners tacked on 178 more yards. In all, sophomore Charleston Rambo caught three passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Junior Trey Sermon ran for 91 yards.