Eagles: Are Jalen Hurts & Khalil Tate all that different?

Khalil Tate (the Eagles latest undrafted free agent signing) began his college career at Arizona under Rich Rodriguez—one of the most revolutionary offensive-minds in college football history, who popularized many of the spread-offense and read-option concepts that characterize the game today. Any attempt to trace the origins of the modern college football offense will surely take you through the Rich Rod-era at West Virginia in the mid-2000’s, where he pioneered an offense led by Pat White that was a precursor to what we see at-large today.

The concepts (at their simplest) are easy to handle: spread the team out, run the football. If the defense over-leverages defending the RB, the QB keeps it and runs. If the defense uses an extra defender to cover the QB, he makes a pre-snap read—or a read instantaneous with the snap—to throw the ball and attack a 1-on-1 matchup in space.

The idea here is to utilize the QB’s athleticism like a second running back, and to simplify passing plays into a repeatable, controlled system of progressions. It’s easy to handle, and frees up the quarterback to be a playmaker instead of asking him to be a field-general.

This is the genesis of most modern college offenses, and its generally the antithesis of what you ask a quarterback to do in the NFL. When scouts talk about the concerns of transitioning to a pro-style system, this is the elementary-level offense that player is coming from. When you wonder to yourself, “why does ‘player A’ have average numbers, and ‘player B’ have eye-popping numbers, yet we still consider ‘player A’ the better pro-prospect,” the difference in scheme is the reason why—for most fans all of this goes without saying—college stats are hardly more than an indication of what style offense someone played in.

We saw this come to fruition with Tate after Rodriguez left Arizona before the 2018 season. In comes Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone’s more pro-style (though still spread) offense, and things began to fall apart for Tate. He was asked to handle more pre-snap adjustments, more dynamic progressions, and more frequently hang in the pocket and deliver more traditional NFL throws.

Sumlin says himself, “I tried to turn Khalil Tate into Peyton Manning,” and it didn’t work. In an attempt to turn him into a more traditional pocket passer (and boost his draft-stock), the Arizona coaching staff discovered his limitations, and the cold truth that Tate likely wasn’t cut out for the NFL as a passer.

Which brings me to Jalen Hurts, who’s career arc in college can be understood in the inverse of Khalil Tate.

Jalen Hurts couldn’t quite handle the elevated level of competition of the SEC, nor could he handle the basic responsibilities of a pro-style quarterback in Alabama’s offense. Like a lot of players, however, between lower-levels of competition and the paired down reads of the Air Raid offense, Hurts found a brand of football more his speed in the Big 12.

More than that, he landed in a Lincoln Riley offense that’s a “numbers factory” where Heisman-hype has less to do with the actual player and more to do with their position as QB at OU.

Of course, that isn’t the end-all be-all for Hurts as a prospect—we’ve seen plenty of spread/Air Raid-QBs grow into pro systems—but it certainly highlights what we know about his weaknesses as a player; the more decisions you ask him to make pre and post-snap, the worse situation he’ll put your offense in.

Not only are the Eagles a less than ideal fit in terms of maximizing Hurts’ running ability, but if you’re looking for a backup quarterback who can inspire some sort of long-term confidence in Wentz’s absence, you should want that quarterback to be a more polished pro-style passer.

Here’s the thing: I obviously don’t think Khalil Tate is going to be a good backup-QB in the NFL. Between inaccurate throws and poor decision-making there’s just not enough basic QB-skills to work with to immediately inspire confidence as a backup. Which is why he’s being moved to wide receiver. But if people are going to sit here and argue that there’s a reasonable case to be made for Hurts developing into a backup then they almost have to say the same about a player like Tate, don’t they? Prospect-wise they’re not quite one in the same, but they’re similar.

Both players are athletic, both flash plus-arm strength, but both players were also propped up by an spread offenses that took advantage of their mobility and shielded them from their inability to make complicated reads and weaknesses throwing into coverage. And both players were exposed as passers when they were asked to handle the more complicated duties of an NFL quarterback.

It should go without saying that this isn’t an indictment on them as college players. Jalen Hurts was a winner at ‘Bama, and a great player at Oklahoma. But at Alabama he was a terrible pro-style quarterback, and continued to struggle with complicated responsibilities even when the team implemented a more spread-scheme on offense.

That’s the lens with which we should view Jalen Hurts as it relates to him as an NFL-prospect. Nobody in their right mind thinks Khalil Tate is ready to be a high-leverage NFL backup, and we shouldn’t think that about Jalen Hurts.

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