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Alabama’s Hurts, Sarkisian unlikely leaders on a potentially historic night

By Michael Whitlow | @couldbelikemike

Sports Capital Journalism Program

TAMPA, Fla. — Last year’s meeting between Alabama and Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T was seen through different lenses by Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

Hurts, who enrolled early at Alabama from Channelview High School outside Houston in January of last year, played the vital role of Deshaun Watson at Alabama’s practices prior to their first meeting against the Clemson Tigers.

Sarkisian had been fired as head coach of the USC Trojans during the 2015 season due to alcohol-related issues. Now, he is the recently-promoted offensive coordinator for Alabama, a former analyst who replaced former coordinator Lane Kiffin heading into the rematch with Clemson on Monday night.

Sarkisian politely deflected questions about his recent history, saying that the issues were a conversation for another day. He will call the plays that will direct Hurts, the freshman quarterback with a 13-0 record as Alabama’s starter.

An Alabama victory would complete a 17th national championship in the history of the Crimson Tide and the fifth in the last eight seasons. Hurts has the opportunity to complete a rare achievement in the modern history of college football. Jamelle Holieway of the University of Oklahoma, who led the Sooners to a victory over Penn State in the 1986 Orange Bowl, is the only true freshman in the modern era to lead a major-college team to a national championship.

“I think Jalen has, for a freshman, really good poise, and probably the most redeeming quality that has helped him throughout the year is that he doesn’t get frustrated easily,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said to reporters during Media Day on Saturday morning in Tampa Bay.

Hurts minimized the impact of the transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian. “It’s just a different guy calling the plays,” he said. Despite a 14-0 mark and a title game appearance for Alabama, the season has not been perfect for the seemingly unemotional Hurts.

He threw nine interceptions during the regular season, including five straight games with an interception from Oct. 8 through Nov. 12. Fumbling the ball has also been an issue throughout his freshman season. Now there is the adjustment to a new voice, just before the biggest game of the season.

In usual Hurts fashion, he appeared unaffected by the perception of uncertainty surrounding the Crimson Tide.

“Coach Sark called me and told me,” Hurts said. “He was the first one to tell me and I was like, ‘Okay, well, let’s do it.’”

One thing that’s made life easier for Hurts after a less-than-positive performance in the 24-7 win for Alabama over Washington in the Peach Bowl: his relationship with Sarkisian.

“I have a really good relationship with Jalen,” Sarkisian said on Saturday. “He’s a kid who loves football. He’s a gym rat. He works at the game. Those are the kind of guys I like to be around. They make my job easier.”

Taking on the role of playcaller a week before the biggest college football game of the season is not ideal by any means. But Sarkisian has nothing but full confidence in Hurts’ ability to help the Alabama offense function effectively.

“I think we’ve worked well together this week,” Sarkisian said. “Ultimately I think we’ll work really well Monday night.”

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