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How OU will look very different (but still dangerous) under Jalen Hurts

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Don’t expect him to become a totally different player, but the Sooners can build a great offense around him.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma
Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

By building a potent offensive system, Lincoln Riley has turned the Sooners into a destination for top QB talent. They secured Kyler Murray’s transfer from Texas A&M with the promise of an open depth chart only for Baker Mayfield to get one more year. And as soon as Murray’s Sooner career completed, they had both a five-star incoming freshman in Spencer Rattler and Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts.

Given that Rattler is not an early enrollee while Hurts had his choice of great options, it seems likely that Hurts was all but assured a starting position.

Hurts has a different background than the previous two signal-callers, though, and he’ll have a different process to get through.

Hurts has a very good skill set for a spread offense, albeit inferior to Tua Tagovailoa’s, yielding diminishing returns when the Tide played elite teams.

Over the last three years, Hurts saw significant action in four playoff games and two SEC championship games. In those six contests, he never threw for as many as 140 yards. His results in championship games against Clemson (13 of 31 for 131 yards in 2016) and Georgia (3 of 8 for 21 yards in 2017) made it difficult for Alabama.

The big difference in the championship against Georgia was that Tagovailoa could execute RPOs, forcing the Dawgs to exert less pressure on Alabama’s run game. For 2018, the Tide built their O around Tagovailoa’s abilities in the RPO game, whereas the better Hurts’ offenses in 2016 constrained defenses with Jalen’s legs on shotgun read plays. After Lane Kiffin departed for the FAU job, Alabama reduced those QB keeper options, which minimized some of Hurts’ strengths and magnified his weaknesses.

The upshot was that Hurts became a one-read-and-scramble kind of QB. Stopping the Alabama offense became about forcing passing downs, then seeing whether Hurts could get out of them, often by scrambling to the right ...

... or not.

In the former example, Georgia shifted into its coverage after the snap, taking away Hurts’ quick post-snap read. He’s a tremendous athlete and was able to slip out. In the second example, Georgia covered up his quick read and also took away his escape route to his right.

The story on Hurts after his junior year mostly spent sitting behind Tagovailoa and occasionally running gadget plays was his growth as a passer, with the other comeback win against Georgia as the big reveal.

Hurts’ mechanics and ability to accurately deliver a ball off a quick read have improved, but Georgia hadn’t prepared to stop him. The main reason Georgia went down was that it did not take away his read consistently and did not prevent him from doing damage on right side rollouts.

Taking away Hurts’ first read and corralling him isn’t as easy as it might sound, as evidenced by the wide variety of results defenses had against him. Hurts rarely moves past the first read and almost always rolls right when that read isn't there, yet his ability to throw a good ball and his athleticism in the open field are high level.

Much of the discussion about Hurts’ pairing with Riley’s offense has geared around how much Riley can teach him about QB play before the season gets going.

In reality, improvements by Hurts as a QB are going to be marginal. As a senior who will need to learn a new system and develop chemistry with a rebuilding OL and new WRs, his hands will be full. Murray and Mayfield had extensive high school and college experience in pass-first systems and Murray had a full year to learn from Riley before they took the field in crimson red, not just one offseason.

The real task will be building an offense around Hurts’ existing skill set. And OU’s pieces will be different than last year’s.

The Sooners face a rebuild, but not a terrifying one. Their graduating offensive guard tandem of Ben Powers and Dru Samia had 83 combined starts, left tackle Bobby Evans departed early after starting 40 consecutive games, and early departing right tackle Cody Ford was a first-year starter but arguably the best player on the unit. The Sooners have been developing along the OL for a long time now, but Hurts will probably not play behind the same kind of cohesive unit that he enjoyed at Alabama or that Mayfield and Murray enjoyed at OU.

But at the skill positions, the Sooners have an embarrassment of riches. Hurts will have 1,000-yard rusher Kennedy Brooks and up-and-coming FB/TE Jeremiah Hall. He’ll throw to 1,000-yard receiver Ceedee Lamb and a deep bench of receivers, including flex TE/matchup weapon Grant Calcaterra:

Calcaterra figures to take on increased importance, as it’ll be crucial for Riley to create plays that give Hurts quick reads. At 6’4, 230 pounds, Calcaterra forces defenses to answer difficult questions about matching up against Sooner wideouts, clearing the picture for the QB before the snap on who’ll get favorable matchups.

The other obvious direction is to beef up the QB run game section of the playbook. Murray ran for 1,001 yards in 2018, but he did it on only 140 carries, many of which were scrambles, and the Sooners didn’t expand their QB run game all that much.

Hurts already has some expertise in the QB GT (pulling guard and tackle) counter run game that Oklahoma has made popular, although Alabama often negated its potential effectiveness by attaching fake reads to it:

Hurts isn’t even reading the perimeter for the swing pass fake. He’s running all the way. And the previous snap, Alabama had run the same play with him throwing all the way, which had led to a semi-successful swing pass into unblocked defenders. Bama might as well have just ran both these plays without fakes.

Of course he’s lethal in the QB draw game...

... which Oklahoma mixed in for Murray and should expand. Back in 2015, Oklahoma ran a lot more QB keeper option plays with Mayfield (141 carries) in order to get the most out of RB tandem Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Hurts had 191 carries as a freshman in 2016 and 154 as a sophomore in 2017. He’s strong and has proved his durability as a ball carrier. If Riley can get him up to speed in making good decisions on pass-or-keep RPOs, that will allow the Sooners to expand an already dangerous portion of the playbook.

Hurts’ capacity for reading the field and progressing through receivers isn’t the same as it was for Murray or Mayfield. Without their absurdly talented and experienced OL or a more developed pocket passer, the Sooners’ ability to leverage their depth and skill at WR will be diminished.

However, if Riley can build a run game around Hurts, overstress defenses with QB options, and create clear reads for finding these WRs, then we might still see a much more impressive passer than we saw at Alabama and another top Oklahoma unit.