TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Communication has always been a strong suit of Alabama coach Nick Saban. After decades of dealing with the media, he’s become skilled at controlling the message and crafting a narrative.
But that control is eroding quickly when it comes to the quarterback competition pitting Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. The message, as Hurts said during an eye-opening interview on Saturday, has already been crafted for them.
Now it’s too late to change it.
Now, as Hurts put it, “The narrative has already been created.”
The narrative, of course, is that Jalen Hurts will transfer if he doesn’t win the starting job. Repeated again and again, it’s become stated as fact, rather than speculation.
Never mind that those words have never actually come out of his mouth.
“The funniest thing about it is I’ve never said a thing,” Hurts said.
Hurts, who has been notoriously brief with the media in the past, didn’t hold back when addressing the rumors that filled his summer. His comments, even in the span of roughly 7 minutes, turned what was already the most compelling position battle in the country and added even more intrigue.
To the surprise of many, Hurts took aim at the coaching staff’s handling of the situation, saying he was “shocked” when he heard how Saban had told reporters at SEC media days he had “no idea” whether Hurts would be on the roster for the opening game of the season.
Never mind, again, that Hurts had met with Saban earlier in June to tell him point-blank that he was staying in order to finish his degree in December.
Worse, though, was how Alabama had left Hurts without a voice, shielding both quarterbacks from the media and leaving them unable to tell their sides of the story. Coaches, according to Hurts, never even bothered to sit down with him and address what he called the “elephant in the room.”
“No one came up to me the whole spring, coaches included, no one asked me how I felt,” he said. “No one asked me what was on my mind. No one asked me how I felt about the things that were going on. Nobody asked me what my future held.”
It wasn’t that coaches weren’t concerned, he said. But he took note of their silence, and his interpretation was that they didn’t want to talk about it at all.
“It’s kind of like a stove,” Hurts explained. “After that (national championship game) the stove got turned on, the heat got turned up, and now it’s like, ‘OK, I put the pot on the stove, I put the food on the stove, now the food is cooking, and come the season when it officially starts the food will be done.'”
That is, if nothing boils over before the Sept. 1 opener against Louisville.
We’re only through two practices, players haven’t even put pads on, and already it feels as if Alabama is struggling to maintain control.
Earlier in the day, before Hurts addressed the media, Saban grew frustrated by repeated questions about the quarterback competition. Asked whether his use of the term “winning the team” meant players would have an input on who the starter would be, he launched into the media’s fixation with depth charts.
“Why do you think that way?” he said. “If there’s people on our team that can contribute why would we not utilize their abilities to be able to contribute on our team in some form or fashion. Just like when we have a guy that’s a great (designated pass-rusher) and we put him in on third down and he rushes the passer. He’s not a starter. But I guess at quarterback that just doesn’t matter in you all’s mind.”
Which might raise the question of a two-quarterback system, right? You might wonder if Hurts, who is skilled at running the football, might be used as a designated rusher if he didn’t win the job, right? Wrong, on both counts.
When asked whether he’s looked into playing both quarterbacks, Saban rejected the premise.
“We haven’t done it at all,” he said. “… We’re practicing every day. We’re evaluating every day. We’re trying to get both players to play at a high level every day.”
He added: “What if this happens? What if that happens? And you’re asking me a, ‘What if both quarterbacks play?’ I don’t have an answer for that.”
Saban’s plan has been simple from the beginning: split the reps 50-50 and let the quarterbacks’ play decide. But that assumes Hurts and Tagovailoa can shut out the outside noise and that the pressure won’t get to anyone. But when you have one quarterback who’s 26-2 as a starter and another quarterback who won a national championship game and became an overnight sensation, is that realistic?
This competition might be happening behind fences in Tuscaloosa, but prying eyes want to know. They want speculation. They want rumors. They want answers.
Hurts finally gave a few answers on Saturday, even though they may not be what some people want to hear. But he wasn’t emotional. He was calm and thoughtful, telling his truth.
Now that it’s out there, maybe Saban will digest it and everyone will be able to move on.
Then again, maybe Saban will interpret it as a selfish act. After all, he has warned his quarterbacks again and again about drawing attention to themselves.
We’ll find out what Saban thinks of Hurts comments when he speaks publicly on Wednesday.