It’s important to share this disclaimer: No college coach is going to badmouth one of his former players who just got drafted into the NFL. There’s an obvious bias given the personal relationship built over several years of working together. In addition, that player’s success in the NFL shows well on the college program he left behind.
However, if that part is true, it’s also fair to say that no college coach would feel obligated to go out of his way and shower unnecessary praise onto a player that he felt was undeserving. That’s why Baylor head coach Matt Rhule’s adoration for Jalen Hurd is so head-turning.
Some thought the San Francisco 49ers reached for the Bears wideout in the third round with the 67th-overall pick. As far as Rhule is concerned, San Francisco landed the steal of draft weekend.
“I truly believe that the 49ers got one of the top 10 best players in the draft,” Rhule told 49ers.com. “He is the ultimate combination of physical dominance. He’s a big, fast, athletic person, who loves to be physical and impose his will on people.
“He has a toughness and an edge that you don’t find all the time anymore. At the same time, he’s got an elite work ethic. He’s going to train and practice at a level that’s going to make him a good player."
Rhule recruited the 6-foot-5, 226-pound receiver as a transfer from the University of Tennessee. Hurd played running back for the Volunteers and decided a position change was best for the longevity of his football career. The two sat down, and Rhule laid out his vision for Hurd at Baylor. Hurd committed to the Bears three days later. The coach called it a “cut and dry” transfer process.
From there, transfer rules mandated that Hurd sit out the 2017 season. The silver lining was that Hurd had a year to learn his new position. He gave Baylor’s starting defense fits in practice as a member of the scout team offense.
“He had elusiveness,” Rhule said of Hurd’s traits as a running back that eased his transition to receiver. “He had change of direction. He had physicality. … He looked like a receiver, and he had elite tape.”
Hurd’s lone season at Baylor was a productive one. He caught 69 passes for 946 yards and four touchdowns in 2018 and added 48 carries for 209 yards and three scores on the ground. Rhul’s favorite story about Hurd came in Baylor’s season finale against Texas Tech when the Bears were desperate for a sixth win in order to become bowl eligible. Hurd wound up tearing his meniscus in the first quarter after catching a quick slant.
Rhule went over to him on the sideline to share his sympathies and thank him for a great season. But Hurd was adamant that he could play through the injury and finish the game. He did so and caught three passes for 43 yards as Baylor went on to beat the Red Raiders. That, for Ruhl, was the defining moment of Hurd’s character.
“He was selfless,” Rhule said. “He was all about the team even though he had an NFL future hanging in the balance. He chose to go on the field and play. To me, that sums up who he is.”
Hurd had surgery shortly thereafter and spent the entire pre-draft process rehabbing his knee. He still attended the Senior Bowl and was placed on the 49ers South Team roster. That’s where San Francisco got its first extended look at Hurd from a personal standpoint. The tape told them everything else the team needed to know about his ability as a receiver.
“The week leading up to the draft, talking to Jalen, I know he was really hoping he’d end up in San Francisco,” Rhule said. “That’s true. He said that to me a couple of times. He felt like after going there and visiting that it was the right fit for him.”
Those desires were largely predicated on Hurd’s wish to play in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan is commonly lauded for his ability to identify skill players with a specific vision in mind. A player as versatile as Hurd requires a coach with the offensive ingenuity to match.
After the 49ers selected Hurd on Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft, Shanahan told reporters that he viewed Hurd as a draft eligible wide receiver, running back and tight end. Hurd is listed as a wideout on San Francisco’s roster, but he’s likely to line up all over the formation in 2019 and beyond.
“They’re going to use him in so many different ways where he’s going to bring so much to that offense,” Rhule said. “I think he’s going to be a guy who can play outside receiver, inside receiver, can block in the box when need be, can play tailback when need be – I mean he’s a matchup nightmare in the NFL in my opinion.
“I don’t think it’s going to take a long time before he’s a really big time player in the NFL.”
It should be noted that receivers commonly face an uphill battle when entering the NFL. Between reading defenses and running a full route tree, wideouts experience a steep learning curve. That's before you mention having to beat out other guys on the depth chart in order to earn reps on gameday. Since 2015, only six rookies have reached 800 receiving yards and only two have topped 1,000 (Amari Cooper and Michael Thomas).
In that respect, Rhule harkened back to Hurd’s mental makeup, approach to the game and overall determination to succeed.
“He checks off the X’s and O’s box. He checks off the skills and talents box. But he also checks off the work ethic and character box,” Rhule said. “I think the fans in San Francisco just got a guy who’s going to play hurt. He’s going to play when he’s tired. He’s going to play whether they’re winning or losing. He’s going to play no matter what because he loves the game.
“To me, as just a fan, that’s what I want. I want to go watch guys who love the game and respect the game. That’s Jalen Hurd.”