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The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Matt Breen

A tarmac, Xbox, and the LeBron Special: How Oklahoma helped Jalen Hurts become the Eagles’ star QB

PHILADELPHIA — The buses were rumbling, waiting to take the Oklahoma football players — dejected after a stunning loss to an unranked team spoiled their undefeated season — back to campus. They flew home from Kansas State in silence, drudged down the steps to the tarmac, and headed for their rides.

It was a painful day — “Around here, you lose one game and you think someone died,” wide receiver Nick Basquine said — and it would be over with a 30-minute bus trip from Oklahoma City to Norman. But before the players reached the buses, the Sooners were stopped on the tarmac by Jalen Hurts.

The quarterback, eye black still smeared on his face, was one of the first players off the chartered flight. He walked to his right, away from the noise of the airplane engines, and told his teammates to follow him.

The players felt as if their 2019 season, which they dreamed would end in the College Football Playoff, was finished. And Hurts had something to say.

“So what?” he said. “Now what?”

Hurts arrived on campus 10 months earlier as a transfer from Alabama, where he lost his starting job on national TV and spent a season as a backup. Adversity? For Hurts, a seven-point loss in October at Kansas State was hardly that.

The loss, Hurts told the players who surrounded him, happened. They couldn’t change the result but they could control their future. Their attitude, Hurts said, was wrong as they simply expected to win because they thought they were the better team. You can’t do that.

The quarterback spoke with conviction on the tarmac without raising his voice. The Sooners had four games remaining, enough time, Hurts said, for the players to adjust their mindsets.

So what? Now what?

“I was ready to fight for him,” running back Trey Sermon said.

Cut from a different cloth

Hurts had been on campus for just a few days when he gathered the team after an offseason January practice. Four years later, he enters this Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game as one of the NFL’s promising young quarterbacks for the top-seeded Eagles.

But then, Hurts was a transfer who had been discarded at his previous stop. He joined Oklahoma for his final college season a week after throwing two passes as a backup in Alabama’s national championship game loss. A season earlier, he had led the Crimson Tide to the final game but was benched at halftime.

For anyone else, the 12 months that preceded Hurts’ arrival to Oklahoma would have been crushing.

“But he’s just cut from a little different cloth from most people,” said Lincoln Riley, then Oklahoma’s head coach. “His attitude, his outlook on things. He has some real perspective for being as young as he is and being thrown into some of the situations that he’s been thrown into really early on in life.”

The Oklahoma staff watched from afar as Hurts seemed to handle his benching with poise. He said all the right things, didn’t question the decision, and waited until after the season to announce his decision to transfer. Hurts seemed to have everything needed to lead a team. And it didn’t take long — just one practice — for the coaches to see him fulfill those expectations.

“He got into the huddle, broke the team down,” said Shane Beamer, then Riley’s assistant head coach for offense. “It was pretty evident then that this guy was about the right stuff. There was no part of me that thought, ‘This is a different guy from who we thought we were getting.’ He was actually even better.”

Building his teammates up

Hurts and Basquine sat together in the grass later that spring, taking off their cleats after the new quarterback threw a series of passes to his new weapon.

Basquine grew up in Norman, walked on to the Sooners, and earned a scholarship before being slowed by injuries. He played with Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, two transfer quarterbacks who won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma. And now he was catching passes from the QB they thought could be the next one.

“He’s like, ‘You’re one of the best dudes I’ve ever played with,’ ” Basquine said. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, I know where you just came from and the dudes you’ve thrown the football to. So you’re either lying to me to get me to feel better or you think I’m a pretty good football player.’ I chose to take the latter.”

Hurts cemented himself in Philadelphia as a leader, bringing a presence to the team almost as soon as he arrived. And that’s how he was in Oklahoma, arriving with just a season of eligibility remaining.

He easily could have been a mercenary as he built his stock for the NFL draft. But Hurts, from his first practice to his first throws with a new receiver, invested in his team.

“He helped others believe in themselves even if they didn’t believe in themselves. He speaks life into his teammates,” Basquine said. “I think that’s the biggest thing in this game, especially when you get to D-1 and the NFL. Everyone is good, so it’s more the mental side and I think he understands that by speaking life into his teammates, lifting them up.”

Not yet the starter

Hurts was a leader, but he wasn’t a starter when training camp began. He was the SEC’s offensive player of the year as a freshman in 2016 and took two Alabama teams to the College Football Playoff. But Riley told Hurts he would still have to win the job at Oklahoma.

“My mindset was if he’s good enough to come be our guy and be what we think he can be, then he would win the job,” said Riley, now the head coach at Southern California. “If he’s not, then he won’t.”

Guaranteeing Hurts a job, Riley said, would have sent a poor message to the rest of the team as they all needed to win their spots. The other QBs, who were on campus before Hurts arrived, would get their shot.

“I actually think he might not have come if we just told him, ‘Oh yeah, the job is yours.’ Honestly,” Riley said. “He would’ve seen the phony in that and he’s super conscious of the locker room, the team, the vibe of the team, the work ethic of the team, the mindset. He would’ve wanted to earn it even if I said, ‘No, it’s yours.’ That’s the attitude.”

Hurts won the job three weeks before the start of the season as he answered the coach’s challenge to change the way he played. Riley’s “Air Raid” offense requires the quarterback to play loose and embrace creativity in the pocket.

Riley spoke to Hurts and his father before he joined the Sooners, telling them how this offense was different from the one he ran at Alabama.

“The best way to explain it is that he’s a very intense, process-driven, hyper-focused guy, which obviously has some huge benefits,” Riley said. “But at times, I thought it restricted him with the way he played and at times, being a little too robotic.

“There’s a system and a method to our offense, but there’s a little free-flowing attitude that can help a quarterback as well. It struck me very early on that this kid needs to not change who you are but to have the ability to play free-flowing at times and approach it that way and have fun with it and enjoy it in addition to being focused and playing well.”

Hurts bought in, loosened up in the pocket, and finished eighth in the nation in passing yards while leading all quarterbacks in rushing yards. His arm seemed limited at Alabama, which is why he was lifted at halftime of the national championship game when the Crimson Tide were playing from behind.

But the first glimpse of the player he blossomed into with the Eagles — a quarterback who can challenge opponents both on the ground and through the air — came after he became less robotic with Riley.

“If he got anything from us in that year, learning to see the game and approach it a little bit differently, learning to play a little more free-flowing and trusting that, I thought it helped him a lot in his year with us,” Riley said. “And I think as I’ve seen him grow in the NFL, I think that was an important step for him that he did a great job with us.”

Soul food and Xbox

Hurts was no longer robotic on the field, but he still seemed a bit automated away from it. His postgame news conferences — similar to the way they are in Philadelphia — were filled with clichés, rarely allowing outsiders to get past his first line of defense. His teammates saw a different player.

“He’s not like that,” said Sermon, who joined the Eagles this season as a reserve running back. “When he’s away from it, he’s kind of an old-school, reserved dude.”

Sermon and Hurts used to drive every week to a soul food restaurant 30 minutes north of campus. Those laugh-filled drives, Sermon said, are some of the best memories of college as the two friends who became NFL teammates were just college students with a dream.

“I don’t even know how we found it,” said Sermon, as soul food restaurants aren’t on every corner in Oklahoma. “It was definitely hard to find. But once we went there one time, we went there a lot after.”

Hurts, a few months after sitting in the grass with Basquine, invited the receiver over to his apartment. Hurts had an old Xbox 360 and NCAA Football 14, the last edition in the video game series that halted production when Hurts was a freshman in high school.

The game in the quarterback’s apartment had current rosters — “He had them updated somehow,” Basquine said — as Hurts was Oklahoma’s quarterback and Basquine was one of the receivers. They played Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma, pitting their virtual selves against each other.

Hurts, who came off at times like a cyborg created to play football, was just a college kid playing as himself in a video game.

“He’s going to dispute it, but let’s say I came out on top,” Basquine said. “He’s his own person. He does a good job of keeping things to himself to himself, but once you get into that inner circle, he’s a good dude. He knows how to have fun.”

LeBron Special

Riley sat next to Hurts on the flight home from Kansas State, telling the quarterback that perhaps he should address the team and reiterate some of the things the coach told the players in the locker room. Hurts said he would do so after the team landed in Oklahoma City.

“I thought he meant, ‘We’ll bus back to the facility and I’ll talk to them,’ ” Riley said.

And there was Hurts on the tarmac, a group of 70 players hanging on his every word as he made them believe their season wasn’t finished.

“He started talking and it just fired us up,” said offensive lineman Tyrese Robinson, now a member of the Eagles practice squad. “And we were just ready for that next practice on Monday.”

The Sooners won three straight games, answering the quarterback’s challenge as they rolled into Oklahoma State for their rivalry game. A win and they’d advance to the conference championship game.

Riley had installed a new play that week — LeBron Special — that was similar to the Philly Special run a year earlier by Doug Pederson in the Super Bowl.

Hurts took the snap, tossed it in the backfield to receiver CeeDee Lamb, who pitched it to Basquine before the former baseball player fired a pass to Hurts in the end zone. They practiced it before leaving for Oklahoma State and the staff told the players they would run it if the right situation arrived.

Here it was: Sooners on the 4-yard line ahead by three points in the first half. Basquine had thrown a pass earlier that season, but this was different. It was windy and the players were jammed together close to the goal line. And then they had to wait for a commercial break to run the play as Riley’s LeBron Special would be the first play of the second quarter.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. Lord, please let me throw this ball accurately,’ ” Basquine said.

The play went exactly as they practiced. Hurts, the player who needed to be less robotic, stood alone in the end zone as a wide receiver threw him a pass. Oklahoma’s free-flowing offense was another win closer to reaching the College Football Playoff as the team answered the challenge of “So what? Now what?” on the tarmac from the quarterback who made himself their leader.

“He cared about everyone on the team from scout players to the top guys,” Robinson said. “He could have been selfish, but he always cared about the team. That’s how he’s always been.”

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