MOBILE — From his vantage point across the line of scrimmage, Jared Mayden has seen the progression of Jalen Hurts.
Lining up opposite the quarterback for the first time since working scout team against him during their first few years in Tuscaloosa, Mayden had a front-row seat to bear witness to just how far Hurts has come as a quarterback during Senior Bowl practices this week in Mobile.
“There’s been a lot of progress. The way he reads his progressions now, his (passing) — the spiral on the ball has gotten way tighter, his decision-making has gotten way faster,” Mayden said of Hurts following Wednesday’s South team practice inside Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “As a player and as a person, you knew he was going to grow and become somewhat of a legend. I’m just happy he cut them dreads off and got a fade. That’s the most exciting thing.”
Jokes aside, Hurts’ development over the past few years — from going 26-2 over two seasons as Alabama’s starting quarterback to combining for 5,149 total yards and 53 touchdowns as a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season at Oklahoma — has been particularly evident to those who have followed his journey from the beginning, including former teammates like Mayden.
“What I’ve really seen is his leadership coming alive,” Mayden said. “Then seeing him come out here and get more comfortable, (whether he’s running the) Alabama offense, then the Oklahoma offense, and now he’s trying to adjust to what these (Cincinnati Bengals) coaches are doing, I feel like he’s doing a great job. He’s really taking the reins of the offense, so just seeing him progress this week has been awesome.”
A year after leaving Alabama for a starting opportunity with the Sooners, Hurts has come back to the state where he first made his mark on the college football world looking to prove he’s more than capable of doing the same thing in the NFL.
“I think that there are a lot of guys that have unique abilities at that level that make the most of what they have — you know there’s no point in having a Ferrari if you don’t know how to use it,” Hurts said Tuesday. “But I’m just coming out here and trying to get better, learn everything I can, soak everything in so I can get the best quarterback I can be.”
What that looks like at the next level is yet to be seen, but while he’s hardly a sure-fire Top-10 pick , Hurts remains one of the most intriguing prospects in this year’s draft class and his performance this week has only reinforced that perception among NFL Draft analysts.
“After struggling for much of Tuesday’s practice, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts responded with a much-improved body of work Wednesday,” USA Today draft expert Luke Easterling wrote Wednesday. “His accuracy was much better at every level of the field, and he seemed much more comfortable in every session. It was a much-needed step up from his performance on the previous day.”
Despite the somewhat rocky start, Hurts’ improvement throughout the week of practice leading up to Saturday’s game certainly impressed NFL personnel in attendance, so much so that he was named the South team’s offensive practice player of the week among the quarterbacks, which includes Justin Herbert of Oregon.
“He’s been surprising. I’ve enjoyed working with him,” Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who is part of the South team’s coaching staff this week, told NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero on Thursday. “Because he’s had some time with those guys at Alabama he has some familiarity with some pro concepts, so some of these things are not new to him. (It’s) kind of fun to see him regurgitate, he’ll tell you how they called it at Alabama, he can tell you how they read the routes. So, it’s fun to see him do that.
“He’s got a bunch of athletic ability. I think it’s going to be fun to watch him play in the game on top of it. See him make some plays and create. He can throw the ball really well, and he’s been fun. I’m glad we have him.”
As evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive reception he’s received in his return to the state, Hurts remains a beloved figure not only to Alabama fans but his former Crimson Tide teammates as well.
“He’s Bama-bred, so I’m still always going to consider him one of us,” Alabama redshirt junior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis said of Hurts on Tuesday.
Added senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings: “Jalen’s my brother, man, we have a lot of history, you know, so we’ve definitely been kicking it, working hard. Looking forward to taking the field with him again and we’re going to try to come out with a dub on Saturday.”
How well Hurts performs in Saturday’s Senior Bowl game (1:30 p.m., NFL Network), along with what he does at the NFL Combine next month in Indianapolis and his upcoming Pro Day at Oklahoma, could have a potentially huge impact on how NFL teams perceive him heading into April’s NFL Draft.
According to USA Today’s Mike Jones, some league officials believe Hurts could get selected as high as the third round and fill a role similar to that of multi-purpose quarterback/receiver Taysom Hill of New Orleans, who was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades with 457 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns in his third season with the Saints.
“Hurts came into (Senior Bowl) week as a likely Day 3 pick,” CBSSports.com’s Ryan Wilson wrote Thursday, “but he has Taysom Hill-type versatility, and there could be a team willing to take a Day 2 flyer on him, especially following a strong outing on Saturday.”
Of course, there’s still plenty of time between now and the draft, and if the progress he’s already shown this week in Mobile is any indication, Hurts could go from intriguing to highly coveted among NFL teams eager to see him continue to make those strides at the next level.
“He’s been successful everywhere he’s been and he really is like an NFL quarterback in a sense because he had to go quickly and pick up an offense and really prove himself as a leader at a new program in a short period of time — which he did, and had a great year,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said . “So those are things now that we get to see in person and get to know the kid a little bit more. But (I’m) excited about Jalen, he certainly had a great college career and put himself in a great position.”