NORMAN, Okla. — At a powerhouse such as Oklahoma, a newcomer assuming an immediate leadership role is virtually unprecedented.
Baker Mayfield sat out a season in Norman before the Sooners took on his brash personality en route to their insurgent run to the College Football Playoff. Kyler Murray quietly waited behind Mayfield for two years before he was handed the keys to the locker room.
Although those quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy and led OU to the playoff, they weren’t the center of attention upon arrival.
Jalen Hurts, however, is just that in Norman.
That’s what a 26-2 record as the starting quarterback at Alabama commands. The same goes for how Hurts gracefully accepted losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa during halftime of a national championship game and stuck it out for another year, only to rescue the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game.
“You never get a guy that does those things — not lose that many games and end up (transferring),” Hurts said. “Then you get to go to another top-tier school, and you’re in a situation where you end up replacing two Heisman winners. You can’t look back in history and say that’s happened ever.”
Hurts has been on campus for less than three months. He has played one meaningful quarter in a year. He has yet to officially win the starting job.
And still, he has already begun shaping the Sooners.
“People just listen to him when he speaks,” defensive back Tre Norwood said. “When he’s talking, you can tell everybody’s locked in because whatever he’s going to say, it’s going to be good.”
In his first public appearance at OU two weeks ago, Hurts captivated the media as well.
Without notes in front of him at the news conference, Hurts gave a heartfelt opening address. He referenced OU’s “great tradition” but also spoke about setting a new standard. He complimented the “exceptional foundation” coach Lincoln Riley has in place on the heels of back-to-back playoff appearances yet opined that the Sooners might achieve more.
And then, before taking questions, Hurts got to his biggest point: “Talking about this team, this year, (an OU) national championship in 2000, however many Heismans there’s been over the years, my past success, the things I’ve done and achieved — those don’t help us win any games in the fall.”
Mike Houck, OU’s assistant athletic director for media relations, couldn’t recall, in his two decades working for the school, another Sooners athlete providing an opening statement to a news conference like that. Not even Mayfield, the loquacious leader who has since gone on to charm the entire NFL, did that.
Sooner Nation is quickly finding out what the Crimson Tide already know. Hurts, as he put it himself, is “not your average Joe.”
“Jalen’s kind of an old soul,” said Riley, who is 35 years old. “When you’re sitting there talking to him, you don’t feel like you’re talking to a young man. Hell, I feel like he’s older than me talking to him, honestly.”
Junior wide receiver CeeDee Lamb is one of the few at OU who already knew Hurts. Lamb briefly met him at a Dallas recruiting camp years ago, when the two were up-and-coming blue-chip recruits from the state of Texas.
During a passing drill, he asked how Hurts wanted him to run a particular route. Hurts replied, “Just get open.” That has stuck with Lamb ever since and become a mantra for him as he has emerged into a star with the Sooners.
“The guy, he’s a warrior,” Lamb said. “Because there’s nothing that can bring him down.”
That was on full display in the national championship game two years ago. Hurts never pouted on the sideline, despite having to surrender the biggest moment of his career to Tagovailoa. Between series, Hurts repeatedly was seen encouraging and talking to the freshman. After Tagovailoa completed one of the biggest passes in Alabama history to down Georgia in overtime, Hurts celebrated with him. Hurts even agreed to do a postgame interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi with a big smile, noting that he was “so happy for (Tagovailoa) and for the team” winning the national title.
That team-first attitude Hurts showed at Alabama has already earned him a platform in Norman.
“Instant credibility,” said OU offensive assistant Shane Beamer, who was on the Georgia staff that faced Alabama in that national championship game. “The players respect him. … this guy has immediate respect.”
Beamer witnessed that firsthand following one of Hurts’ first seven-on-seven workouts with the Sooners.
“I can remember somebody calling the team up, and there’s a vocal voice, and it’s like, ‘Who’s that?'” Beamer said. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s Jalen.’ He’s a guy that’s focused, on a mission for the season and very determined.”
That might explain why Hurts needed no notes for the opening statement of his news conference. He’d already been hammering that message to his new teammates for weeks.
“You would’ve thought he’d already been here, the way he came in and set the standard, what the standard is supposed to be … if you want to be a great team,” defensive back Parnell Motley said, recalling Hurts’ first team speech. “He came in ready to lead this team and ready to pick up right where we left off.”
That made these circumstances all the more unique.
Hurts comes in as one of the most high-profile transfers in college football history, given that players so accomplished almost never transfer.
Where OU left off was becoming the first program to produce back-to-back Heisman-winning quarterbacks in Mayfield and Murray.
Still, despite OU’s success in recent years, which includes a record four consecutive Big 12 titles, no player on the Sooners roster has experienced winning a national title.
“He’s been to where we’re trying to go,” Lamb said. “We’re gonna follow his footsteps.”
Who knows in April where Hurts and the Sooners will be come December and January?
Alabama and Clemson, after all, remain the class of college football, loaded with their own star quarterbacks in Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence.
The Sooners, while potent with playmakers such as Lamb, have glaring questions. That includes whether a previously hapless defense can improve under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and whether a previously running-inclined quarterback in Hurts can thrive with his arm, as Mayfield and Murray did, out of Riley’s Air Raid attack.
“I think I clearly understood what I got myself into, but I also know that I have expectations for myself,” Hurts said, acknowledging the spotlight of his transfer, the pressure of replacing potentially two No. 1 overall draft picks and the leadership burden he has undertaken despite having just joined the team. “I’m kind of built for these type of situations.”
A special situation. For one special individual.
“Everything about it is unique,” Hurts said. “For me, I know it’s happening to a unique person.”
His first months as a Sooner are proving just that.