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Hurts brings more big plays than freshman mistakes to Bama
Auburn Alabama Footba Heal 1 WEB
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) waves to fans as he leaves the field after they defeated Auburn 30-12 in the Iron Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jim McElwain never had a quarterback at Alabama quite like Jalen Hurts.

The freshman has emerged as the top-ranked Crimson Tide's most prolific rushing quarterback, a departure in style from the drop-back passers running the show during McElwain's days as offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa.

Now, his 15th-ranked Florida Gators have to figure out a way to contain Hurts and the Tide in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game in Atlanta.

"They've added a new dimension, obviously," the Gators coach said. "This quarterback is something that's real special, has created a lot of explosive plays not only for himself but obviously because you have to play that component, it loosens it up for some other guys. There isn't really a weakness on that team."

Now, though, the 6-foot-2, 209-pound Hurts will be facing the best pass defense of his young career. The Gators rank third nationally in pass defense efficiency, behind only playoff contenders Ohio State and Michigan — among the potential Tide opponents down the road.

It's a challenge for a youngster who has been a dynamic playmaker but hardly immune to mistakes — no surprise for a freshman, even one leading the defending national champions. (Coach Nick Saban doesn't allow freshmen to speak to the media during the regular season, so Hurts' own take on his play will have to wait until at least after the game.)

Hurts has passed for 2,454 yards and 21 touchdowns. He has also already set the single-season rushing record for an Alabama quarterback with 840 yards while accounting for half of the team's 24 touchdowns on the ground and 30 percent of the Tide's runs.

That's been good enough to lead the Tide to a perfect regular season and secure Hurts a spot among the 10 finalists for the Manning Award as the nation's top quarterback.

There's plenty for him to fix as a passer before a likely playoff game, and certainly in the next couple of years.

Hurts threw his eighth and ninth interceptions of the season in the first half against Auburn . That's more than any Alabama quarterback since coach Saban's first year, in 2007, when John Parker Wilson was picked off 12 times.

Hurts has also fumbled nine times, losing five.

He's made more than enough plays to compensate for those mistakes, proving his resiliency along with his talent. Hurts is still learning on the job, after all, and Saban said he's "very dedicated" to improving.

"I don't think anybody on the team wants to play better at his position than Jalen Hurts," Saban said. "He wants to do well. You're still talking about a guy that's a freshman. You can't really coach experience. There are some things that guys just have to learn by doing and sometimes the best way to learn it is when you make mistakes."

Hurts took over the starting job after the opener against USC, when he fumbled on his first snap. Former five-star signee Blake Barnett started that game but soon left the program when it was clear Hurts was going to be the guy.

He's operating an offense with talented runners like Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and receiving threats like ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley.

But nobody has delivered more timely plays than Hurts. He has produced eight runs of 20-plus yards and some big passing plays, though he hasn't been particularly consistent with the deep ball.

McElwain praises not only Hurts' talent but his mental fortitude.

"I do know they've done a heck of a job playing to his strengths," he said. "He's fun to watch, I'm telling you. He's got a great command. He's calm. He doesn't get flustered. He takes what they give him. Yet they give him a crack, he can beat you with his feet.

"As coach (Saban) used to say about the running quarterbacks, it's like playing 12 guys on the field. It looks that way sometimes."