Jalen Hurd came to Tennessee as a heralded in-state recruit that was supposed to be a big fixture in UT’s return to football prominence. Instead, he left the Vols mid-season in 2016, and his legacy as a Vol has been tarnished forever because of it.
Hurd’s decision to leave UT after the South Carolina game in 2016 has been discussed time and time again among Vol fans ever since he announced his intention to leave the program and transfer to another school. The former five-star recruit and accomplished Vol running back ultimately elected to go to Baylor and switch positions to play wide receiver after finishing less than 500 yards shy of UT’s all-time rushing yard record.
In an extensive interview with Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, Hurd detailed that decision to leave Tennessee, why he did so mid-season, and why he wanted to play a different position.
According to what Hurd told Goodbread, the decision he came to wasn’t something he made lightly.
“Hurd’s radical career move wasn’t the knee-jerk response of an impetuous star; his relationship with Jones had been strained for almost two years, and his relationship with the running back position had been strained for almost two months,” Goodbread wrote.
Jones had brought in Hurd as a five-star running back in Tennessee’s 2014 signing class, Jones’ first full class as UT’s head coach. Hurd was the centerpiece of a star-studded class that was charged with being the foundation for the Vols’ rebuild under Jones’ “brick by brick” vision.
Unfortunately for Jones and Tennessee, that brick house came tumbling down only a few years later. And it arguably started with his relationship with Hurd.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound back had been frustrated with his usage as a sophomore during the 2015 regular season, and he made a suggestion to Jones about switching some things up on offense to better suit his skill set. Hurd, of course, wasn’t the only star on offense that year, but he was a large part of what UT did on offense. But he was a power back in a read-option offense. He wasn’t exactly a perfect fit, and he wanted a slight change in offensive philosophy to better utilize what he could do.
Jones obliged somewhat, and Tennessee used more I-formation plays in their 45-6 drubbing of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl to conclude the 2015 season. Hurd won the MVP of that bowl game, totaling 130 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
But those I-formation concepts would never come back in UT’s offense. And that festered in Hurd’s heart.
“I wasn’t afraid to ask for what I wanted, but I never once demanded it or acted disrespectful to coach Jones about it,” Hurd said. “He would say, ‘I’ve got you,’ but then it would be the same old thing. Just tell me things aren’t going to change and I might have transferred sooner (and) there wouldn’t have been any hard feelings.
“All I ever wanted was to be told straight.”
As for his frustrations with the running back position, that started at the beginning of next season in 2016.
In his first two years at Tennessee, Hurd was the bell cow of UT’s backfield. He totaled 467 carries and another 57 receptions in his first 26 games as a Vol, and all those touches and subsequent hits his body took every time he had the ball in his hands took their toll.
After Tennessee’s season-opening overtime victory against Appalachian State in 2016, Hurd said his body didn’t feel right. And that’s when he first started to realize that running back might not be the position he wanted to play long term any longer.
“I took a different impact in that game than I’d ever taken in my life,” Hurd said of the Appalachian State game. “I took a mental note of it. I had taken punishment like that before but had never felt that way afterward. I had just come out of training camp, feeling fresh, feeling strong. I shouldn’t have felt like that after one game.”
Hurd totaled 29 touches in that game, but his workload didn’t lessen in the coming weeks. He touched the ball 23 times against Virginia Tech, got a bit of a break against Ohio and only carried the ball 15 times, but was right back in the thick of things with 28 total touches in Tennessee’s 38-28 win over Florida.
Then came the Georgia game. And that’s where things took a drastic turn for Hurd.
There was plenty of speculation about what happened to Hurd during the Georgia game from Vol fans and media alike. But in the interview with Goodbread, Hurd admitted he suffered a concussion against the Bulldogs. Despite that, he ended up coming back into the game during the Vols’ final kick-off return with mere seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Hurd wasn’t part of Tennessee’s usual kick-off return team, but Tennessee dialed up a special package for that return that allowed for pitchbacks and laterals in case a miracle return presented itself. And Hurd didn’t want to miss that opportunity to help his team pull off the magical ending.
“I just wanted to win,” Hurd explained. “I definitely wanted to be in on that play, but I wasn’t supposed to do that. In concussion protocol, that’s a big no-no.”
But Hurd did it anyway, and Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie chastised him for doing so. Hurd spoke with Butch Jones about the situation. According to Hurd, he signed on to Jones’ idea of not disclosing the concussion to the media. Instead, Jones would say that he had suffered a lower-extremity injury because a concussion would raise more red flags to NFL scouts.
As Goodbread states, though, lying to the media about the injury wouldn’t help Hurd’s draft chances at all.
“NFL clubs build their health evaluations of prospects based on official medical records, not media reports — a reality Jones presumably would have been aware of,” Goodbread wrote.
Per Goodbread, Hurd admitted his own part in that ordeal and acknowledged that he signed off on the misleading report. Upon reflection, however, Hurd now believes that Jones wasn’t acting out of Hurd’s best interest; he suspects Jones was merely covering his own skin.
“The more I look at that situation, I think the reason he did that was because I went back into the game,” Hurd told Goodbread. “Because they didn’t take my helmet away. He was going to get in trouble for that.”
Hurd would miss Tennessee’s next game against Texas A&M, and his absence allowed backup running back Alvin Kamara to shine. Kamara set the school record for most yards from scrimmage in a game, though the Vols would lose to the Aggies in double-overtime.
Goodbread spoke to an anonymous source with knowledge of Tennessee’s football program, and that source said that Kamara’s outburst against Texas A&M coupled with the growing “attitude” from Hurd made the former five-star standout lose some support in UT’s locker room.
“There had been a growing sense on the team all year that Kamara was the better back” the source told Goodbread. “So, between Jalen’s attitude and with what Alvin did against Texas A&M, he lost some support.”
All of this came to a head in Tennessee’s game against South Carolina three weeks later.
The Vols suffered a blowout loss to Alabama after the Texas A&M game, had a bye week, then faced-off against South Carolina on the road. Tennessee’s offense had one of their worst performances of the season, and Hurd ended up taking himself out of the game because of pain he was suffering from during the game. The next day, he would ultimately decide to never play for Tennessee again.
At the time during the game, though, that wasn’t going through Hurd’s head.
“I took myself out because my head and back were hurting,” Hurd stated. “I definitely wasn’t thinking, coming off the field, that I was leaving school.”
But Hurd did leave Tennessee, and he did so with four games remaining on UT’s schedule and with the Vols still in the hunt for their first SEC East title since 2007.
Vol fans to this day villainize Hurd for his decision to leave Tennessee mid-season. He has been trashed on social media, radio shows, and all throughout Vol Nation.
Some will say Hurd deserved that backlash, others would disagree. But Hurd himself regrets that he did it the way he did.
“Looking back at it, yeah, I should’ve waited it out,” Hurd explained. “I should have finished the season even if I wouldn’t have played (at Tennessee) again. I don’t think I’d be looked at in the same negative light I am now. But I didn’t see that at the time.
“I regret it, but it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. There would be less to explain now.”
Hurd may regret how he went about his decision two and a half years removed from making it, but it still remains a sore spot for many Vol fans. But according to one of his former teammates at UT, Hurd made the right decision, even if he did it in a controversial manner.
“He was drowning,” former Vol offensive lineman Jashon Robertson told Goodbread. “When you see someone in the state he was in, it’s not about ball anymore.
“His spirit was drowning.”
Robertson was roommates at UT with Hurd for three years, and the two knew each other growing up in middle Tennessee. Robertson believes that Hurd made the right choice for his physical and mental health, and he stood up for Hurd even when others would trash him.
“It was pretty obvious that not every player had a full understanding of the situation,” Robertson explained. “When you have people that don’t understand, they’re going to fill in the gaps themselves with their own biases or opinions.
“If I heard something bad about him in the locker room after he was gone, I wouldn’t stand by and just listen to it. I wasn’t having none of that.”
Hurd went on to transfer to Baylor prior to the 2017 season. He sat out a year as required by NCAA transfer rules at the time, and then he suited up as a wide receiver in 2018 for the Bears. In his one season on the field at Baylor, he led the Bears in receptions (69) and receiving yards (946). He finished with four receiving touchdowns, and he also carried the ball 48 times for 209 yards and three scores. He was second on the team for most offensive touchdowns outside of quarterbacks.
Hurd’s NFL future is yet to be decided, but he’s finally shed more light on his time at Tennessee and what led to his departure from the Vols. Now, he’ll have to answer for his decisions in front of NFL executives and scouts when he prepares for his next career move.
As for Tennessee fans, the discussion about Hurd’s 2016 season won’t end any time soon. But maybe hearing Hurd’s side will change some of the conversation.
You can read the full interview on NFL.com here.