Hurts happy with start but sees room for improvement

Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts runs the against Houston Sunday, September 1, 2019, at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman. 

NORMAN, Okla. — Jalen Hurts had a debut for the record books in Oklahoma’s 49-31 victory over Houston Sunday in the opening game for both teams.

The Alabama graduate transfer broke Baker Mayfield’s school record for total offense (396 yards, 41-3 win over Akron, 2015) in an OU debut by throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns and running for 176 yards and three scores. He’s the first Sooner to have passed for at least 300 yards and ran for more than 150 yards in a game. It was a school record for a season opener and the fifth highest in school history.

OU’s 686 yards in total offense was the most by the Sooners in a season opener, topping the 676 yards against UTEP in 2017.

But what went wrong with those three incompletions?

“There’s always room for improvement,’’ said Hurts with a smile.

“Always room for improvement’’ was his theme during his press interviews following the game.

“I think coming into it that we prepared well and we had a nice game plan,’’ he said. “We did some really good things tonight but there’s a lot of things we need to improve on. We got to take the next step. One thing that we need to set straight right now is we’re not going to make excuses for ourselves.

“I think coach (Lincoln) Riley had a great message. When we sit back and watch this film, it won’t be as good as we thought or as bad as we thought. You have to enjoy the moment. When you stop enjoying a win, that’s when you have to stop playing. I think we’re going to enjoy it. We have a 24-hour rule on that. There are a lot of things we can learn from it and we’re going to try to take advantage of that this week and fix them. We got a long ways to go and we have to continue to take the steps we need to take.’’

Hurts was making his first start since the 2017 national championship game when he was replaced by freshman Tua Tagovailova at halftime. Tagovailova beat out Hurts last season and took the Tide to the College Playoff Championship, including an 42-31 win over OU in the semifinals.

Wide receiver Ceedee Lamb, who caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Hurts in the second quarter, said Hurts didn’t show any nerves before the game.

Riley said if Hurts did a good job handling any nerves he might have had and “handled the moment well.’’

“I would say I was in a situation or position that I’m supposed to be in,’’ Hurts said. “I can’t say I haven’t done it before. Maybe I was a little rusty ... I don’t know. I’m back out here with this team and this group. It was very exciting and I enjoyed it a lot.

“I definitely want to maximize the opportunity that I have here every day. I enjoy every moment with these great guys that I have around me and I try to soak it all in. You only live once. God has put me in some unprecedented situations, but it ain’t nothing I can’t handle. It was just another day on the gridiron. It felt good to be out there. All of this Jalen and me stuff ... you got to take those steps with the whole team.’’

Hurts appreciated the historical situation he was in. While OU has had prominent Division I transfers (Nate Hybl, Georgia; Mayfield, Texas Tech and Kyler Murray, Texas A&M), none had come with Hurts’ resume (a national championship at Alabama as a freshman in 2016).

“This is an unprecedented situation playing at a school like Alabama and a school like Oklahoma,’’ he said. “How many people can say they have done that? I’m just focused on the now and the steps we have to take.’’

He talked about having the right intent and mentality to do things the “OU way.’’

“I can tell you it will unfold the right way,’’ Hurts said. “The first game is to try to do it the right way and set the standard we have and have the mindset of you have to get better. We had flashes of great things, but at times we struggled. Now we have to get better and we need to get to work.’’

Riley praised Hurts’ work ethic since and his willingness to learn a new offense.

“He’s put in a lot of work since he got here,’’ Riley said. “He was confident in what we were doing. He’s committed to what we’re doing. You have to go out and trust it before you can have success with it. If you wait for success before you trust it, success will never come.’’

Hurts’ growth can be seen in the patience he showed Saturday.

“Reality is that I’m not the same player that I was as an 18-year-old freshman or as a 19-year-old sophomore and last year in the time that I did play. We have been working as a team to try to take those steps. We did some good things tonight, but we have to take some steps to be where want to be and do what we want to do.’’

Riley said the only negative for Hurts was OU losing two fumbles.

“I have to do a better job of protecting the ball,’’ Hurts said. “We have to be able to protect the ball as a group.’’

Hurts, while a dual threat like his predecessor Murray, is still quite different. He is not as fast as Murray but is more physical and not being a former baseball player, has not perfected the slide Murray was known for. Lamb said Hurts plays with “a chip on his shoulder.’’

“When you slide, you lose yardage,’’ Hurts said. “It’s kind of tricky there.’’

Hurts said he “just tried to get the play that was called when asked if most of his runs were designated.

“There’s definitely a difference between them (Murray and Hurts),’’ Riley sad. “I wasn’t surprised by his strength. There’s no question his strength is a little different from what we had before. I know he can withstand it. It’s going to be an ongoing process for the both of us.’’

Hurts showed an ability to throw both short and long with scoring strikes of 45 yards to Lamb, 56 yards to Charleston Rambo and 14 yards to Jeremiah Hall. A 42-yard pass to freshman Jadon Haselwood set up another score. Hurts was not sacked as an offensive line with only one starter back (center Creed Humphrey) stood up well.

“All of those guys did a great job,’’ Hurts said. “Ceedee did a great job of getting open. He was open and we made the play.’’

Riley said some of the best plays and decisions Hurts made won’t show up in the stat sheet.

Hurts’ debut attracted a national press (including the New York Times). The game — televised in prime time by ABC — was the only game of the night in major college football.

“He’s handled it well,’’ Riley said. “It would be hard to describe his journey. It would be a good movie some day. It’s pretty remarkable in this day and age.’’

Hurts will leave any comparisons to Mayfield, Murray or others to the media.

“That’s for you all to decide,’’ he said with a smile. “You will have fun with it. My story isn’t over. It will end when I die. I hope that doesn’t come anytime soon.’’

He was asked if he felt revenge over Houston quarterback D’Erig King, whose high school team eliminated Hurts’ their senior year. The question brought laughs from the media but not Hurts.

“It ain’t high school anymore,’’ Hurts said.

Hurts and the Sooners host South Dakota at 6 p.m. Saturday.

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Campbell is a former sports writer and current part-time writer for the News & Eagle,

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Graduate of Oklahoma City John Marshall (1972) and University of Oklahoma. Been at News & Eagle since June 19, 1978. Previously worked at Oklahoma Journal, Midland, Texas Reporter & Telegram, Norman Transcript, Elk City Daily News

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