MONTGOMERY – It’s not often you can learn from two different Heisman Trophy contenders at the same time.
Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher had that opportunity, sitting in a quarterback room at Alabama in 2018 that included 2018 Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa and 2019 runner-up Jalen Hurts.
“I was trying to compete with them every day,” Hatcher said. “Obviously, I was learning from them for sure, but it was a good measuring stick to kind of find out where you were every day. If I could ever throw with them, I was in a good spot. It was awesome just being in that high-level room.”
Hatcher didn’t play in 2018 and knew his opportunities would be limited in 2019 with Tagovailoa and backup Mac Jones returning in 2019. Just as Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, Hatcher would soon follow in the NCAA transfer portal after going through a spring of change in Tuscaloosa.
“After the Clemson national championship game, the whole offensive staff left within two days of each other,” Hatcher said. “That was a pretty big surprise. I knew (offensive coordinator Michael) Locksley was leaving, but when everyone else left, that was a pretty big surprise. New recruits came in, new coaches came in and it just didn’t work out the way I wanted to in the spring. I was getting plenty of reps in the spring. Toward the end, I started losing them.”
Hatcher had originally committed to Arkansas State after compiling a 41-1 record as a starter at Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy. But after throwing for 5,779 yards and 51 touchdowns as a senior in 2017, he attracted the attention of the Alabama coaching staff and chose the Crimson Tide over Arkansas and Arkansas State.
“There’s two ways to handle a guy who tells you he’s not coming,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said. “You can get mad and burn the bridge and ruin the relationship or you can understand he’s 17, 18 years old and making a really tough decision in the first place. Just tell him if the opportunity presents itself, the door would be open.
“I felt like he would get to Alabama and realize it’s a really, really talented place and there are a lot of good quarterbacks in the room. And there’s a chance he might not get on the field like he wanted to, so we wanted to keep the opportunity available. It happened faster than I thought. I thought it might take another year, but I’m happy to have him back and I think it’s one of the reasons we’re playing this weekend.”
Hatcher followed the example set by Hurts and put his name in the transfer portal.
“Coach Anderson was the first person to call me,” Hatcher recalled. “We had a relationship before and he told me when I decommitted from Arkansas State, I could always come home and he’d welcome me with open arms. That’s a rare thing to see at this level of football these days, that people are a man of their word. He took me back.”
Even then, the redshirt freshman wasn’t likely to see much playing time until Logan Bonner, who was leading the Sun Belt Conference in passing at the time, went out for the season with an injured thumb. The Red Wolves turned to Hatcher the next week at Troy.
“The first ball he threw was a 92-yard touchdown,” Anderson said. “I thought he handled it pretty well.”
Hatcher completed 25 of 35 passes for 440 yards and four touchdowns to help Arkansas State win a shootout with the Trojans.
“I felt ready,” Hatcher said. “I probably wasn’t as ready as I thought I was. I felt like if I put in the work and the preparation, my opportunity would come. When it came, I felt like I was ready for it.”
Hatcher would complete his eight-game journey as the second-rated passer in the Sun Belt Conference in pass efficiency and passing average, completing 174 of 254 passes with eight interceptions, averaging 312.5 yards per game. More importantly, he helped the Red Wolves win five of their final eight games.
“He’s made mistakes along the way, but he’s continually improved,” Anderson said. “The main thing that you find out about Layne is just his work ethic. It’s unbelievable. He’s prepared and put in the time and energy, even to a fanatical level, that has been a great example for the guys around him. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and you’ve got to have the respect of your teammates to lead at that position and that’s allowed him to fill really big shoes with Logan and be effective. Had he not done that, I think we would’ve fallen apart offensively.”
Now the young freshman faces another big test, going up against a talented Florida International defense in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday.
“They’ve got a good secondary,” he said. “They’ve got one of the top pass defenses in their conference. They’re going to try to man you up, challenge you man to man and see if you can beat them and with our receivers, I feel great about that challenge.”