WACO, Texas -- Some saw a weight lifted from Jalen Hurd's shoulders that they knew was a long time coming. Others sat there, in a team meeting room at the University of Tennessee's Anderson Training Center, and thought they were listening to a blueprint for career suicide. Or maybe just selfishness.
Perhaps all of those perceptions were true. But Jashon Robertson only saw his best friend in pain.
UT's 2016 season was reeling from its third consecutive SEC loss, and it was about to reel even more. Hurd, the school's star running back, had decided to clean out his locker and leave the program at a time of year when no NFL draft prospect in his right mind would.
With four games still left on the schedule.
With the Volunteers desperately needing a turnaround to save the season.
And with the 2017 NFL Draft beckoning with big money.
The timing, however, wasn't the only bizarre aspect to a decision that rocked Rocky Top to its core. Hurd also had convinced himself, after playing running back his entire life, that a switch to wide receiver was the smartest thing for his NFL future. Against all the sane advice he could stand, he not only left his team at midseason, he left behind the position that had been his golden ticket, as well.
What some called crazy, to Hurd was just bold.
They saw a folly that could cost him millions; he saw a necessary course correction.
When a full team meeting broke the day after Hurd lost his last shred of tolerance for Tennessee football, about a dozen players he felt closest to stayed behind at his request. Hurd stepped to the front of the room, and in an outpouring that lasted about 10 minutes, told them what he would tell coach Butch Jones a day later -- that the rest of the season was theirs to save.
He had himself to save.
"He was drowning," said Robertson, Hurd's three-year roommate at Tennessee and his closest confidant on the team. "When you see someone in the state he was in, it's not about ball anymore. His spirit was drowning."
Coming up for air meant ripping his NFL resume in half six months before he would have been drafted as one of the nation's most gifted running backs.
The decision left scouts to start over with a blank sheet of paper, and left Hurd with just one season to fill it in. Growing up a UT fan, he couldn't have fathomed signing with the home-state Vols as a five-star recruit only to end up a fifth-year wide receiver at Baylor, trying to re-establish his draft standing against a fast-ticking clock. But that's where he finds himself this year -- performing in the obscurity of a middling program that has had to push a re-start button of its own.
If he could go back in time, it wouldn't have gone down quite the same way.
But it's easy to look forward when there's so much to leave behind.
* * * * *
WHILE THE FIERY AFTERMATH of Hurd's untimely exit scorched earth in Tennessee, Hurd was freezing and bundling up with his warmest clothes. He spent the rest of the 2016 football season holed up as a guest of one of his best friends, Nathan Xander, in the River Forest Apartments in Richmond, Va.
For nearly four weeks, tucked at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains amid a constant snowfall, he laid around Xander's apartment and tried to clear his head with anything but thoughts of football. He binge-watched a season of "Friends," lost himself in "Battlefield" on Xbox, and crashed on an air mattress at night. A week earlier, he'd been entrenched in Tennessee's in-season football regimen; now he was reduced to catching poorly thrown passes from Xander in a snow-covered parking lot. For the rest of the season, he didn't even watch college football on Saturdays.
Nobody in Richmond recognized him, and he loved it.
He largely kept his phone off during that period, but Xander, a UT graduate, noticed him glance at it enough to assume he was aware of the unbridled anger awaiting him on social media. He put out a statement on Twitter explaining why he had packed his bags but wasn't worried about how it would be received.
He was at peace with leaving UT from his first knock on Xander's door.
"It was a relief for him," Xander said. "He never said, 'What have I done?' or dreaded the backlash. Jalen leaving Tennessee had been a long time coming."
By the time Hurd left the seclusion of Xander's apartment, he'd decided to train for his new position in California and made his first official visit to Cal in search of a transfer destination. He followed with visits to Ohio State and Louisville, but ultimately chose Baylor, the last of his stops, for two key reasons. One, he sensed trustworthiness in head coach Matt Rhule that he had long since lost with Butch Jones. And two, he'd had his fill of the over-the-top, all-consuming nature of UT fan fervor, and the scrutiny that emanated from it.
Ohio State certainly would have been no escape from that. In Baylor, however, Hurd found an environment that was, while passionate, a little less crazed. Waco didn't lose as much sleep over a loss as Knoxville did, and that was just fine with a kid who, as a recruit, was corralled into autographs and selfies with strangers before he'd ever even played a down for the Volunteers. Just hours after seeing the school for the first time, he phoned the coaching staff and let them know his transformation as a wide receiver would come as a Bear.
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.
On the Friday morning following the Volunteers' season-opening 20-13 win over Appalachian State, Hurd's entire body ached like it was the end of the season, not the beginning. He wasn't injured, but he went to the training room for standard post-game treatment with an uneasy feeling about his future as a running back.
"I took a different impact in that game than I'd ever taken in my life," he said. "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."
And with that, a two-year frustration with pounding inside-zone runs between the tackles -- a primary reason he and Jones never saw eye to eye -- began to correlate with the pains and injuries Hurd sensed accumulating on his 240-pound frame. He began researching the longevity of NFL running backs and found it to be a short career. As a wide receiver, he could see himself playing much longer.
He's not alone in the frustrated running back club.
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell sat out 2018, foregoing $14.5 million in a contract dispute that stemmed from the wear-and-tear he feared for his body. The nation's top high school running back recruit, Quavaris Crouch of Charlotte, N.C., switched to linebacker over concerns about the way his former position is trending. Seven-time Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson, according to the Washington Post, not only endorsed Crouch's decision but said he wouldn't play running back either, with the benefit of hindsight.
Over the first eight Tennessee games of 2016, Hurd did the same math Crouch did and both arrived at the same answer. But Crouch abandoned the running back position with an entire college career ahead of him; Hurd did it with a promising NFL career within his grasp.
"He wouldn't have been in the discussion with (Leonard) Fournette and (Christian) McCaffrey at the top of that draft," said an AFC scout. "But he's such a good athlete for his size, he would have been right there on that next tier."
* * * * *
THE LIGHT SWITCH STAYED OFF for four days.
For four days following UT's thrilling 34-31 win over Georgia in 2016, Hurd barely got out of bed, curled up, waiting for concussion symptoms to subside. Yet just outside his room, Tennessee students milled about under the impression he had merely tweaked an ankle.
How does that happen? Hurd admits it began with his own error in judgment.
He suffered a significant concussion against the Bulldogs and watched from the sideline under concussion protocol as quarterback Jacob Eason launched a 47-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining to put the Bulldogs ahead. Hurd wasn't part of UT's normal kickoff return team, but after Eason's TD throw, the desperation call from the Tennessee sideline was for a special return that allowed for pitchbacks -- a nod to Cal-Stanford lore -- for which Hurd was part of the personnel package.
It was a chance for a miracle win he didn't want to miss out on, and against protocol rules, Hurd grabbed his helmet and took the field.
"I just wanted to win," Hurd said. "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."
It didn't go unnoticed by the UT coaching staff. After the game, Volunteers running backs coach Robert Gillespie admonished him for it, and minutes later, Hurd says he signed on for a ruse at Jones' behest. According to Hurd, Jones told him a public announcement of a lower-extremity injury would be in Hurd's best interest, because a concussion would be more of a red flag for NFL scouts. Hurd was fine with the suggestion, and Jones made the announcement at a post-game news conference. Jones called it an upper-body injury later in the week, but ultimately never addressed it with any public specificity.
Now a quality control assistant at Alabama, Jones could not be reached for comment through the school's media relations department, under a Nick Saban policy preventing assistants from speaking to the media.
Of course, a false disclosure wouldn't have saved Hurd's draft standing anyway. 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. While recognizing his own hand in the mess, from re-entering the Georgia game to signing off on a misleading injury disclosure, Hurd now believes Jones was acting not out of concern for Hurd, but out of self-preservation.
"The more I look at that situation, I think the reason he did that was because I went back into the game. Because they didn't take my helmet away," Hurd said. "He was going to get in trouble for that."
Hurd didnï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t practice all week, staying on bed rest with the concussion, and sat out the following game against Texas A&M. That allowed Kamara to deliver his signature college game, 127 yards rushing and 161 receiving, and marked the ascent of Hurd's backup as a fast-rising draft prospect himself.
If Hurd was beginning to crack the door for his exit from UT, Kamara's performance flung it wide open.
* * * * *
INCREDIBLY HARD-WORKING, but aloof and distant. Highly intelligent, but more attuned to self than team.
These are some of the conflicting attributes NFL evaluators will hear about Hurd when their research takes them to the Tennessee campus. If who he is and how heï¿½ï¿½ï¿½s perceived there are indeed divergent, scouts will be charged with parsing the difference.
Hurd readily admits going to Jones, as far back as his freshman year, requesting changes to the offense that he thought would suit his skill set. He readily admits expressing a desire to transfer as a sophomore, but that was viewed in the UT football building more as a threat than a fleeting frustration.
Hurd says Jones tried to appease him by using an I-formation package more to Hurd's liking during stretches of the 2015 Outback Bowl, only to abandon the package the following season. Hurd won the Outback Bowl MVP with 130 yards and a touchdown.
That one UT source described as an entitled star being placated felt more like a bait-and-switch to Hurd. It's on this topic that Hurd feels most misunderstood. In an hour-long interview at Baylor last month, with a slightly raised voice, he was quick to defend the tone of his interactions with Jones.
"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."
That was the backdrop for the dramatic falling out that finally spilled over after Tennessee's loss to South Carolina in 2016.
Hurd removed himself from the game in the first half, citing back pain and concussive effects he said had lingered since the Georgia game four weeks earlier, even though he had passed concussion protocol. He put on a back brace at the half and remained in uniform on the sideline, but some teammates weren't buying it.
According to a source within the program at the time, several UT players pleaded with Hurd to finish the game against the Gamecocks because Kamara was out with an injury and the Vols were short on backfield experience in a close game. Afterward, some players were furious -- Hurd said linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin confronted him directly -- and Hurd's standing in the locker room, fair or not, was damaged.
"There had been a growing sense on the team all year that Kamara was the better back," the source said. "So, between Jalen's attitude and with what Alvin did against Texas A&M, he lost some support."
Hurd never played another down for Tennessee.
The following day he resolved to leave school, just 440 yards shy of UT's career rushing record.
* * * * *
EASY AS IT MIGHT BE to lay all the blame at Jones' feet, Hurd can look in the mirror and hang a share of it on himself. Violating concussion protocol was one mistake. Leaving the team midseason was another. When NFL clubs probe Hurd's reasoning at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he'll try to explain it. He'll try to clarify it.
But he won't try to defend it.
"Damn right. Looking back at it, yeah, I should've waited it out. I should have finished the season even if I wouldn't have played again," Hurd said. "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."
And, boy, is there much to explain.
Formal combine interviews in Indianapolis will give him just 15 minutes to impart a hard-to-believe story on hard-to-convince NFL general managers. Questions will be pointed.
"Leaving Tennessee will be a much bigger deal for teams than changing positions," said an AFC scout. "He's kind of got a lone wolf thing going on. He lives alone at Baylor. The distance he seems to keep from people will be part of the discussion."
One point Hurd must sell to NFL teams perhaps better than any other is that his decision to leave UT midseason did not come to him mid-game against South Carolina.
"I took myself out because my head and back were hurting," Hurd said. "I definitely wasn't thinking, coming off the field, that I was leaving school."
The optics as they looked from any of Neyland Stadium's 102,455 seats, however, were ripe for a scapegoat narrative. When an unhappy player asks out of a third consecutive loss, then leaves the team two days later, assumptions are made and injuries are questioned.
To Vol Nation, it looked like desertion. To Hurd, he'd been the one deserted.
"It was pretty obvious that not every player had a full understanding of the situation," Robertson said. "When you have people that don't understand, they're going to fill in the gaps themselves with their own biases or opinions."
Hurd had a few defenders in the UT locker room after his departure, but others were more than ready to see Kamara take over the backfield for the balance of the season. Robertson was most vocal in his defense.
"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," Robertson said. "I wasn't having none of that."
* * * * *
AS BAYLOR COACH MATT RHULE sits at his office desk, a glass wall to his right provides a perfect view of the Bears' practice field behind the Simpson Athletic Center. Following a Monday practice last month, Rhule assures a visitor that Hurd is always the last Bear off the field, then turns his head to the right to affirm the claim.
Hurd is still out on the field with Harrison Hanna, an equipment manager.
Hanna's day isnï¿½ï¿½ï¿½t over until Hurd's is. He feeds football after football into one of
Baylor's two Jugs machines, firing passes into the biggest pair of hands in the receiving corps. Hurd's right hand is massive enough that when he shakes someone else's, the tip of his thumb can touch his other fingertips on the back side. It'll measure 10 1/4 inches when NFL scouts put a ruler on it, which would have ranked second largest among all receivers at the 2018 scouting combine. Footballs disappear into those hands like he's been playing receiver all his life, although it would be a stretch to suggest he was an immediate natural in his new role.
"I couldn't even begin to count how much extra time we've spent out there," Hanna said. "If he's got to go lift or run to a meeting, he might do a quick 35 or 40. But if he doesn't have anything, we do 100 easily. He has me shoot them high, low, every kind of way."
On this day, he catches 77 of 79 balls from the machine at a variety of different angles, distances and difficulties. He's crammed his entire education at the position into just two years -- a sit-out season in 2017, per NCAA transfer rules, in which he took part on Baylor's scout team; and this year's Bears team, where he finished the regular season with team-highs in receptions (69), receiving yards (946) and yards from scrimmage (1,155), while finishing second in total touchdowns (7).
Even Hurd's staunchest critics at Tennessee concede his work ethic is unmatched. He was considered the hardest-working player on the Vols roster, a distinction that carried respect with coaches and players alike. Between that and his production -- he averaged 99 yards a game as a sophomore -- there was plenty to like before relationships soured.
At Baylor, coaches say Hurd has not only worked extremely hard, but has been a model teammate as well.
"One of the biggest questions NFL teams have is, 'Who is going to change once they have money?' " said Rhule, an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants in 2012, a sabbatical year in the NFL sandwiched between 15 years at Temple. "Who is playing because they love it, and who is playing to get paid? Jalen loves it."
New Baylor receivers coach Frisman Jackson has been the perfect fit to tutor Hurd through the transition. Like Hurd, Jackson switched positions after three years in college to wide receiver, then played five seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He's been where Hurd wants to go, and given he was the Tennessee Titans wide receivers coach last year, few have Hurd's ear quite like he does.
There is a lot to like about Hurd's quickly developing game, but as Jackson stops a film clip from earlier this season of Hurd against Texas-San Antonio, he points out something the receiver must do better.
"Every route isn't run at 100 miles an hour, because you can't be out of control at the top of the route. He's got to learn to play at different tempos," Jackson said. "You want to set guys up, then put a burst on them. It's a game within the game. He's starting to get better at that. But early on, he was trying to make his breaks at full speed and he'd be out of control and stumbling."
Asked how he would evaluate Hurd's potential at receiver for the draft if he were still coaching in the NFL, Jackson said he would merit, at worst, a second-round pick.
In evaluating game film of Hurd this season, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein recognized the same lack of polish at the break point of his routes that Jackson mentioned. "It sticks out like a sore thumb," he said.
But Zierlein also believes the issue can be resolved easily with more seasoning at the position, and took note of Hurd's role as an occasional rusher in the Bears offense. Rhule said Hurd was receptive when asked about a rushing role, mostly in short-yardage situations, and averaged four carries per game.
"[He's got] unique short-yardage potential as a runner," Zierlein said.
Hurd will be one of the most freakish athletes in the upcoming draft. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds -- he dropped 20 from his running back days -- he can run the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. His testing numbers at Baylor would have made him a top-five receiver at last year's combine in every event but the 40: bench press (20 reps), vertical jump (40 inches), broad jump (10-10), three-cone drill (6.60) and 20-yard shuttle (3.87).
It's a dazzling composition of athleticism that will demand draft respect, even if some clubs determine his baggage doesn't.
One more factor in his corner: Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell held the same role at Baylor last year, when Hurd was burning the Bears secondary as a scout-team player. Hurd impressed Bicknell in practice with a work ethic Jackson calls "the best I've ever been around."
* * * * *
JONES' TENURE AS TENNESSEE'S COACH crashed at the end of the 2017 season in a tangle of dysfunction and lopsided losses. But back when he assembled the Vols' 2014 signing class, his first at UT that could truly be called his own, optimism was high.
The class was ranked fifth in the nation by Rivals.com, and Hurd was its five-star centerpiece.
It was hailed as the class that would anchor Tennessee's return to prominence and included pass rusher Derek Barnett (Philadelphia Eagles' 2017 first-round pick); WR Josh Malone (2017 fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals), DB Rashaan Gaulden (2018 third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers) and TE Ethan Wolf (an undrafted free agent currently on the Green Bay Packers practice squad). That group eventually snapped a two-year draft drought for a once-proud program, and Hurd was supposed to have been among them. He was the signee Vols fans were perhaps most excited about -- a dynamic running back from the home state who committed 11 months before signing day and helped recruit the rest of the star-studded class in the interim.
"I went to Knoxville for a bunch of games my senior year of high school. People recognized me like I'd been there three years when I hadn't played a down," Hurd said.
Hurd grew up in Hendersonville, Tenn. -- a half hour from the site of the next NFL draft in Nashville -- and was a casual UT fan. His father played for Tennessee State in the mid-1990s and his mother ran track for the local high school. Jalen's grandparents were especially fervent Vols supporters, but he observed the zealous side from an arm's distance. He didn't need the trappings of stardom when he went to Tennessee, and even less so by the time he left.
Robertson understood Hurd like few others; in middle school the two used to lift weights in Hurd's garage, and at Montgomery Bell Academy in 2010, they were the only freshmen to start. They've been through plenty together, so after Hurd told a small circle of teammates he was leaving Tennessee, Robertson stayed behind as the others left.
"I sat there and watched them dap him up, one by one, until they all left," Robertson said.
From Dillon Bates to Ethan Wolf to Coleman Thomas and others, each wished Hurd good luck. Each tried to be understanding, even though Hurd isn't sure they all had his back after he left. And even of those that did, not all of them believed he was making a smart decision; what could possibly be smart about putting two more years of distance, plus a position switch, between oneself and the NFL draft?
But when Robertson got up and hugged Hurd, just the two of them still left in the room, he said what none of the others could. And what many outside that room still aren't sure of.
"I told him I believed in his vision," Robertson said. "I believed in what he planned for himself."
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