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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Adapting Lincoln Riley’s offense around Jalen Hurts

Get ready for a new attitude with Hurts at QB.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The stories from Jalen Hurts’ three years with the Alabama Crimson Tide tend to end up as life lessons about the importance of handling adversity with grace and the value of character.

The upshot of all that collected wisdom: Being a good locker room guy should help him slide into the role of starting quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners fairly seamlessly. That’s a plus, but what about the actual quarterbacking part of the gig?

Hurts’ skill set represents a major departure from his two most immediate predecessors at QB for OU. For all the success the Sooners had with Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield at the helm, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in some respects.

One-cut runner

The most intriguing aspect of the Hurts portfolio is his running ability. In his two years as Bama’s starting QB (2016, 2017), he rushed for a combined 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns. Roughly 30 percent of his 245 attempts in that period went for 10 or more yards. That’s nearly identical to Kyler Murray’s rate in 2018.

However, Murray and Hurts couldn’t be more different as runners. Murray’s strengths lie in his breathtaking speed and ability to change direction. The combination made him a nightmare to corral, especially on dropbacks when he ventured outside the tackles. Overmatched pass rushers had a tough enough time getting a hand on No. 1, let alone bringing him down. These plays frequently ended with Murray either going out of bounds after picking up a decent chunk of yardage or standing in the end zone.

For his part, Hurts is a decent scrambler, although not in the same league as Murray. Hurts’ long stride does help him cover ground quickly. On the other hand, Hurts lacks the wiggle of a 5-9 jitterbug.

Instead, Hurts thrives as an inside runner. Having a player with his vision as a runner and size (6-2, 220 pounds) behind center is akin to having a one-cut running back taking snaps. Not surprisingly, Bama offensive coordinators Lane Kiffin and Brian Daboll frequently called Hurts’ on QB draws.

Another potential weapon OU can utilize with Hurts in the running game: the inside zone read. The Tide used this with varying degrees of effectiveness; the skill of the blockers who routinely accompanied Hurts around end could make it brutally effective.

Hurts not so good?

The bigger issue with integrating Hurts into OU’s offense is his ability to throw deep. In the past, Riley has emphasized that he likes his QBs to take chances and try to stretch the field, even when it borders on recklessness. That’s not Hurts’ game.

For starters, no one will mistake Hurts’ arm for a howitzer. That lack of arm strength likely contributes to his issues with accuracy on deeper throws.

Moreover, when it comes to short and intermediate routes, Hurts’ throwing motion seems to delay his delivery from the pocket. As a result, he struggles to fit the ball into tighter windows when receivers come open.

In fairness, Hurts did appear to improve as a thrower in nearly every way when given the opportunity this season. He clearly put in work with QB coach Dan Enos and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.

Did Hurts progress enough to keep it moving if opposing defenses confine him to the pocket? We’ll probably find out at some point in 2019. However, it’s also worth noting that few defenses on Alabama’s schedule in 2016 and 2017 actually had the personnel to leverage Hurts’ limitations against the Tide. I imagine OU will encounter a similar situation in the upcoming season.

A new attitude

Personally, I doubted in the beginning that Riley would have much interest in pursuing Hurts as a one-year option because of the ceiling on his passing ability.

OU’s offense derived its strength in recent years from having an effective counter for anything a defense could throw at it. Trying to take away certain element of the attack opened up opportunities in other areas, and the Sooners could usually exploit those just as easily.

The Sooners owed that versatility in large measure to two elusive QBs who could also make every throw in the book. Winning with Hurts at QB necessitates a new identity for the offense. In that sense, I could envision the Sooners essentially trying to dictate the terms to defenses, rather than adapting to what they’re given.

Riley is now pairing a bruising runner at QB with two thousand-yard rushers in his backfield. This is coming at a time when defenses in the Big 12 are increasingly adopting schemes to combat the league’s air-it-out offenses. Building an offense around a powerful running game constitutes zigging to everyone else’s zag.

The question for opponents becomes how to keep from getting steamrolled on the ground, and their answers will leave the vast majority of them vulnerable through the air. As Stadium analyst Michael Felder notes in the video above, that should make life easier for Hurts when it comes to throwing the ball.

The Mayfield-Murray vintages of the OU offense turned into some of the best in college football history because they could score from anywhere on the field. Success in 2019 for the Sooners will more likely start with an ability to get five or six yards at will. The offensive line will likely experience some growing pains in the beginning, but I’d expect Bill Bedenbaugh to have the talented youngsters rolling by mid-season. That should allow OU to dictate things in the aforementioned manner.