SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Just 441 yards short of becoming the University of Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher, Jalen Hurd made the sharpest and most surprising cut of his career.
Midway through his junior season with the Volunteers, Hurd abruptly abandoned his path to becoming a Volunteers legend and, on a bigger scale, an NFL running back.
In part because he wanted a longer, less punishing career than that of an NFL running back and in part because he liked the idea of making big plays on a more consistent basis, Hurd transferred to Baylor with the idea of becoming a wide receiver capable of doing just about anything on a football field.
“I want to play the game as long as I can,” Hurd said. “So for that switch for me, I knew I could play receiver, and I can do both, so I wanted to be able to do more things and not take as much punishment as in getting 35-40 carries a game up the middle.”
Hurd trimmed down to his current 230 pounds and played one season for the Bears at wideout, posting 69 receptions for 946 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He added 48 carries for 209 rushing yards and three rushing scores. Along the way, he played outside receiver, in the slot and running back and occasionally flashed potential as a tight end or H-back.
In an NFL increasingly focused on matchups, Hurd transformed from workhorse running back in the mold of Eddie George (Hurd’s favorite player as a kid) to multipurpose weapon in the eyes of coaches, general managers and talent evaluators. His tape became a smorgasbord of possibility for the game’s brightest offensive minds. He made more than a half-dozen pre-draft visits and spent time at each stop discussing how he might fit into the offense.
“I have been at slot. I can play on the outside. Obviously I have a running back background, so there’s not really any limit to me on the offensive side,” Hurd said.
Although the 49ers had already drafted receiver Deebo Samuel in the second round, Shanahan saw Hurd as the type of versatile player who is capable of creating mismatches from just about anywhere on the field.
After selecting him in the third round, Shanahan said he believed Hurd could have been drafted as a running back or a tight end and described him as an “NFL receiver, kind of.” The message was clear: Shanahan has big plans for Hurd in his offense, even if those plans aren’t easily defined.
“That’s a pretty unique thing to have,” Shanahan said. “I don’t remember being able to say that about any player I’ve studied before. So it’s neat to be able to do that, and he can help us out in a lot of different ways.”
To be sure, Hurd is listed at — and prefers to be called — a wide receiver. His usage will be limited only by the constraints of Shanahan’s imagination and Hurd’s ability to pick up the offense from multiple spots.
For example, using Hurd likely means that opposing defenses will have to switch to nickel packages, which means he could find himself matched up against linebackers in coverage. It could also mean putting him in the backfield to take a handoff or even at tight end. Putting Hurd on the field gives the Niners the ability to play multiple personnel groupings without immediately revealing how they will line up. That could cause a lot of confusion for opposing defenses.
“What’s neat is when you have a receiver who can fluctuate like that, but also it’s the mentality to go play at running back or to play tight end,” Shanahan said. “And it doesn’t mean you want to put him there all day, but just to have the threat to do that. There’s a lot of receivers who maybe could have the ability to do it, but it’s very rare to have the ability and the mentality with it because playing running back is a lot different than playing receiver, and it’s a lot different than playing tight end, and he’s capable of doing it all.”
Indeed, there aren’t many easy or obvious comparisons for Hurd in recent memory. In fantasy circles, it’s rare to find a player whose primary position is wideout but who also has running back or tight end eligibility.
Receivers who regularly got carries include Tavon Austin, Percy Harvin, Joshua Cribbs, Cordarrelle Patterson, Dexter McCluster and DeAnthony Thomas. Since 2001, only three players listed as wideouts — Harvin, Austin and McCluster — have amassed more than 300 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards in a season.
Among tight ends, former Niner Delanie Walker and Charles Clay took the occasional handoff, though they have only a combined 23 career carries. How the Bears deploy tight end Trey Burton could also offer some evidence of the Niners’ long-term plans for Hurd.
For now, Hurd is starting at receiver, and he will get his feet wet before the 49ers throw too much at him.
“I’m a mismatch guy, so just wherever they best see me fit, I can make a play,” Hurd said. “I can do a lot. That’s not really my position right now to kind of guess and see where I’m going to play. So I’m going to go in there, work hard and see where I end up.”