NORMAN, Okla. — Conventional wisdom suggested Oklahoma was down to three scholarship running backs in its season opener, with T.J. Pledger and Marcus Major both unavailable.
But Jalen Hurts unofficially looked like the fourth, providing OU’s key ground threat while keeping its air attack propelled with his arm.
The question of how Lincoln Riley would tailor the Sooners’ offense for Hurts after his transfer from Alabama was fairly obvious. Hurts pumped his legs to 954 rushing yards with the Crimson Tide as a freshman, then 855 the following year.
Running figured to be part of the equation. It was how Hurts did it that captivated people.
He showcased a blend of power, speed and production that made him the talk of college football three hours into his OU career. It wasn’t just that he rushed for 176 yards, second all-time among OU quarterbacks and becoming the first Sooner to pass for at least 300 yards and rush for at least 150 in a game.
Hurts hit people in the mouth, twice bulling in for TDs at the goal line, an area where play-calling becomes difficult. His 6-foot-1, 219-pound body is a weapon the Sooners haven’t had at his position in some time.
Kyler Murray mastered the art of the slide and rarely took contact while quarterbacking the Sooners last year. Hurts played the exact opposite way and bristled some at the thought of sliding: “Well, when you slide, you lose yardage now,” he said. “So kinda tricky there.”
Hurts falling forward for yards instead of scampering away from contact could challenge Riley’s theory that quarterbacks in his offense are rarely injured.
“Jalen is a different body type without a doubt. He’s played a lot of ball. We’ll continue to get a good feel for where we want to be,” Riley said. “That’s something that’s really hard for me to grade until you get on a live field [for the first time] … I know he can withstand it. But we also take pride in keeping our quarterbacks healthy too. It will be ongoing and a learning process for both of us.”
Using Hurts’ build might be too tempting to pass up. Riley hasn’t had this luxury yet in his coaching career.
“I was kind of interested to see him run around on a live field,” Riley said. “I’ve seen him play and I’ve seen tape so I knew he was a good athlete. It certainly is always different being down on the field. He’s an impressive athlete, no question. His strength is a little bit different than what we’ve had here.”
Hurts can also pull away from defenders.
Late in the first half of OU’s win over Houston on Sunday, Riley called a play with a pass-first option where the left side of the field was cleared for running space. It was well-blocked, but Hurts’ carved up ground quickly.
His long stride and ability to escape the pocket made a 43-yard run look easy. It was the third-longest play of the night from either team.
That added run dimension helped OU pile up 686 yards on 61 plays — an 11.25 average. It was the third-highest average in school history, not too far from the record of 11.96 set against West Virginia in 2017.
Hurts’ two fumbles were his biggest negatives. One, near the end of a 15-yard run in the second quarter, killed a good scoring opportunity. Another came on a sloppy handoff to running back Rhamondre Stevenson in the fourth quarter.
“Definitely gotta do a better job of protecting the ball,” Hurts said.
To the naked eye, that’s about all Hurts can improve upon. His 20-of-23 passing for 332 yards and three touchdowns dispelled the idea that he wasn’t an accurate enough passer to thrive in Riley’s system.
Couple that with his other tools and it’s easy to see why Hurts’ dad, Averion, told ESPN’s Holly Rowe during an in-game interview he believes Riley has “unleashed” his son.
"He played with a chip on his shoulder and he wanted everybody to know that he still has it,” OU receiver CeeDee Lamb said. “I feel like he's just getting his feet wet and he's looking to be better.”
Jalen Hurts vs. history
• 176 yards rushing were second-most by an OU quarterback behind Thomas Lott (195 yards vs. Kansas State in 1976)
• Hurts was just the fourth OU QB to rush for at least 100 yards in his debut. Others were Kerry Jackson (109 vs. Utah State, 1972), Steve Davis (110 vs. Baylor, 1973) and Trevor Knight (103 vs. ULM, 2013)
• His 128 first-half yards tied a school record set by Jamelle Holieway (Kansas, 1985)