TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts' expression never changed throughout the course of what had to be a frustrating final scrimmage of the spring Saturday when he completed 19 of 37 passes for 195 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. The junior from Houston remained as straight-faced as ever, even as third-string quarterback Mac Jones outperformed him, winning co-Most Valuable Player, while Hurts settled for a share of the Jerry Duncan "I Like to Practice" Award.
As the more than a dozen awards were handed out following the scrimmage, Hurts took a knee and didn't say a word. He has never been particularly outgoing, but this felt different. During the upswing of 2016, as he came from nowhere to take over the starting job as a true freshman and win SEC Offensive Player of the Year, his quietness was taken for focus. As a sophomore, when he was responsible for 25 total touchdowns while throwing just one interception, it was more of the same stone-cold determination.
Now, after getting benched during the second half of the national championship game and seeing his former backup, Tua Tagovailoa, become an overnight sensation, Hurts' body language came off differently. Media and fans had questions about his confidence.
Saturday, it was as if Hurts had come full circle. When no one thought much of him as a freshman, he used the A-Day scrimmage to capture everyone's attention by completing 11 of 15 passes, including the game-winning touchdown with less than three minutes remaining. Almost overnight, he became one of the most promising young QBs in college football.
But two years and two national championship trips later, he has found himself fighting off another young, promising quarterback, Tagovailoa. Two days before A-Day, Hurts had to read how his father told Bleacher Report that the son would transfer if he didn't win the starting job again. And with Tagovailoa sidelined by injury and an opportunity to pull ahead in the competition in front of him, Hurts struggled, failing to find the end zone.
Give him credit. Hurts hasn't lashed out once, even as criticism aimed at him has mounted. During the game, he didn't berate receivers, even though they cost him at least three receptions. Nor did he tear into his offensive line, which allowed him to be sacked seven times, not to mention all the unrecorded pressures. Hurts remained stoic through it all.
Head coach Nick Saban tried to bring some of that context to the table after the scrimmage.
"There was way too much pressure in the pocket for the quarterback to be able to operate like we would like," he said.
Saban said he wasn't disappointed in Hurts' performance -- not that it will do much good when the last impression we have of Hurts from now until the start of the season is the interception he threw at the end A-Day.
Never mind Hurts' full body of work, including a 26-2 record, 40 passing touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Never mind that he has also rushed for 1,808 yards and 21 touchdowns. When Saban benched him during the national championship game and Tagovailoa threw the winning touchdown in overtime, everything changed.
It has become a battle of two years' worth of evidence versus one half. And, according to senior running back Damien Harris, what that's worth "depends on who you ask."
"You'd have to ask Coach Saban," Harris said. "Obviously, Jalen has a great body of work, and he's accomplished a lot of great things here. Tua obviously had a great second half in the national championship game, and so everyone knows he's a great player, as well. But to be honest, all that stuff is in the past, and all that matters really is how we progress moving forward and how both guys progress. Regardless of what either of them has done in the past, I don't think that's something that should be a deciding factor for either of them. Whoever is a better player, that's who the coaches are going to put on the field."
When that decision will be made, however, is anyone's guess.
Someone will need to make a choice, whether it's Saban, Hurts or Tagovailoa. It would be in Saban's best interest to let the competition go into the first few games of the season, but that's beginning to feel less likely as the prospect of transferring becomes a more tangible option for whoever finishes as the backup.
Hold on tightly because even though the spring is over, the competition continues. Hurts might have looked shaky during A-Day, but there's a reason Tagovailoa rushed back after breaking his finger during the first day of practice. After all, why play through the pain and risk further injury unless you felt you had to?
Tagovailoa might have more upside as a passer, more potential to unlock the entire offense. But he's still an unknown. He still has played only one meaningful half of college football, and even that featured one near-interception and one nearly devastating sack in overtime.
Hurts might have looked bad on A-Day, but it's worth remembering that Tagovailoa couldn't even play. As coaches are fond of pointing out, availability means something. If anything, his absence meant the competition couldn't move forward, and that's not good for either quarterback.
At this point, handicap the race at your own peril. Saturday was rough for Hurts, but it wasn't the be-all end-all.
As Harris explained, nothing that happened before means much of anything now. Tagovailoa might be the next great Alabama quarterback, and Hurts might not be ready to hand over the reins just yet.
Only one thing is certain: The clock is ticking for both.