PHILADELPHIA – When it comes to red shirts at Alabama, there is a dual meaning, the conventional football strategy of slowly ramping up freshmen who may not be quite ready to play and Nick Saban’s desire to teach his players how to handle the media by preventing access until the young men have been schooled on navigating the “rat poison.”
In the days leading up to their high-profile matchup former Crimson Tide teammates Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts had to put their Saban-infused training to work in the wake of those trying to build narratives that just aren’t there as the two stars prepare to do battle in a primetime matchup between a pair of 5-1 teams with the two top offenses in the NFL, Tua’s Miami Dolphins against Hurts’ Eagles.
The two quarterbacks were part of the deepest room at the position in recent college football history which also included Mac Jones, the current New England Patriots starting signal caller.
Hurts was first in line and led Alabama to the national championship game in 2018 before being benched for a then-freshman Tua, who fueled a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia in which current Eagles’ receiver DeVonta Smith caught the game-winning touchdown.
Even since that day Saban’s decision has been conflated in the minds of many who assume some kind of disconnect between Tua and Hurts but the opposite is true. The two were always friends and remain so to this day.
Tagovailoa, in fact, specifically defended Hurts after the title win on social media
“Tired of people not appreciating the fact that if this man led us to the National Championship. And for all the fans that are against Jalen, you against me too. You either WITH US or AGAINST US. Love you 2,” Tua tweeted, referring to Hurts’ college uniform number.
The response from Hurts was: “Love You Too Lil Bro! Proud Of You!”
Fast forward to the ensuing SEC title game the next season and Saban needed Hurts again after Tagovailoa was injured and the current Eagles’ franchise QB delivered against the Bulldogs to win the conference title and again secure a berth in the national championship game.
Hurts ultimately ended up finishing his career as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy with Oklahoma as Tua built himself into the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 draft at Alabama.
Both are now NFL franchise quarterbacks leading the most dynamic offenses in the NFL, the high-flying Dolphins who are putting up historic numbers and the versatile Eagles who can beat you in multiple ways tied to Hurts’ strengths as a player.
“There’s different ways to skin the cat, right?” said Tagovailoa. “Many different ways. He went down a different road than I did to get to where I’m at. And he had to go down a different road to get to where he’s at. …I got a lot of respect for him – who he is as a person who he is as a player and wish him the best of luck as we play him.”
Hurts had a similar sentiment.
“It’s been great to see the things he’s been able to do over his career,” said Hurts on Wednesday. “Hopefully, hoping for continued success.”
The benching never scarred Hurts, who has been uniquely bred by his football coach father to value difficult coaching and embrace the lessons that can be learned from adversity.
“It’s a compound effect of not just those times at Alabama, but my whole career thus far of a number of different experiences,” Hurts said when asked about the hiccups along the way. “And so, always an opportunity to learn from that. I think I’ve just grown in wisdom, and just kind of grown as a person throughout my whole entire career.”
Those looking for extra motivation for Hurts need not look back years but days to last week’s loss to the New York Jets when an uncharacteristic poor decision by the quarterback cost the Eagles a game after a 5-0 start.
“Yeah, I’d say throughout my whole career, it’s built upon different experiences, and experience is the biggest teacher,” said Hurts. “So, whether it’s the experience last week, or two weeks ago, or two years ago, or whatever it was, it’s just always learning and growing to be a better player and person.”
Pushed as a potential Super Bowl preview by many, Sunday’s game was downplayed by both QBs as just another week of competition.
“I think in competition mode, it’s one of those things where I know where he’s at with his play, he knows where I’m at with my play,” Tagovailoa said. “We’ll probably see each other before the game to wish each other luck, but at the end of the day, we’re both trying to help our teams win.”
Hurts, meanwhile, stuck to his typical mindset: “I’m just going to go out there and try to play our best game.”