A heralded four-star running back from Hendersonville, Hurd arrived in Knoxville last January with no clue as to the Vols’ pass-protection schemes. After hundreds of practice repetitions and countless hours of playbook study, he found help from an unlikely source – the Madden NFL video game distributed by EA Sports.
“To learn my downs and stuff my friends and I would play Madden,” Hurd recalled following Saturday’s practice. “I’d see the (defensive) front and I’d try to say what the front was and who I’d have on this protection. I try to have a little fun with it.”
For all of his talent as a runner, Hurd realizes that his playing time in SEC action this fall will hinge on how well he learns to protect Vol quarterbacks.
“You can run the ball in this league but if you can’t pass (protect) you can’t get on the field,” he said. “In high school pass blocking really wasn’t a big thing but pass blocking is the most important thing now. You pass-block first, run the ball second.”
Whereas running is largely instinctive, pass protecting is a learned behavior. Every freshman running back encounters this hurdle, including Jalen Hurd.
“Running the ball is a natural thing,” he said. “I’ve been running the ball since I was six years old. Pass-blocking is a little different. It takes a little time to get it.”
Not surprisingly, the complexity of the schemes is the biggest difference he has found between his days at Beech High School and his early days on The Hill.
“The mental game coming in is something you’ve got to get used to, plus the tempo of the game,” Hurd said. “When you know your plays – you’re (only) worrying about what the defense is doing, instead of worrying about where you’re aligned and what you’re doing – it definitely helps.”
After arriving in Knoxville with a surgically repaired shoulder last winter, Hurd participated in spring practice but did no weight training until June. That slowed his development a bit but he believes he’s full-go now.
“In January I was still rehabbing my shoulder,” he said, “so I finally got in the weight room over the summer, and I’m feeling great.”
As perhaps the most heralded member of a recruiting class ranked No. 4 nationally by Scout, Hurd is a celebrity in Knoxville, just as he was back in Hendersonville. He wasn’t expecting that.
“It surprises me every day,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy, just walking down the street chilling, then people come up to me asking for autographs. I love it. I love my fans, and I can’t wait to show them what I can do.”
If anything, Hurd’s celebrity status grew during the spring. He showed a real knack for breaking big runs in scrimmages, further enhancing his reputation. Some folks believe he could be a 1,000-yard rusher, a milestone several SEC freshmen have achieved in recent years.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of guys do that but that’s not my main goal,” he said. “I definitely want to run for a bunch of yards but I want to help my team win. That’s the most important thing.”
At 6-feet-3 and 225 pounds, Hurd routinely ran over defenders in high school. He tried to do the same in the early days of spring practice.
“I was still in the high-school mode, thinking I could just run like I did in high school,” he recalled. “You change things up (in college). You still run but you know when to run and juke, when to get vertical and not get vertical.”
Hurd still enjoys bowling over defenders but admits modifying his running style a bit to protect his body.
“I’ve changed my pad level a lot,” he said. “I’ve always gotten low through the line but I’m getting lower…. Some things in my game have changed, and I’m happy to show that this season.
Surprisingly, one of those changes is his speed.
“I definitely think I’ve gotten faster,” he said. “I definitely think my burst is a lot better.”
Most successful running backs are in the 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11 range but Hurd has a few taller role models he’s looking to emulate.
“My main guy is (6-foot-3 former Tennessee Titans star) Eddie George,” Hurd said. “I love him to death. That’s one of my biggest idols. And (6-foot-1 Minnesota Vikings standout) Adrian Peterson is a great guy to idolize in The League right now.”
Running backs the size of George and Peterson are rare exceptions to the norm, however. As a result, some observers suggest Jalen Hurd is too tall to be a productive rusher at the major-college level. He has a ready answer for those skeptics:
“Just come watch me play.”
See highlights of Hurd and other Tennessee skill players by clicking play on the InsideTennessee video below: