Photos provided by Jeffrey A. Camarati, UNC Athletics Communications
North Carolina senior James Hurst has a simple, but lofty goal for himself this season: be the best at his position.
He wants to be selected an All-American, win the Outland Trophy and solidify his NFL Draft status, while leading the Tar Heels to a postseason bowl game.
“I want to be the first offensive tackle taken in the NFL Draft,” said the Plainfield High School graduate. “I want to be the best offensive tackle.”
Plainfield graduate James Hurst has been a standout at UNC and is projected to be among the best offensive linemen in the NFL Draft. Photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati, UNC Athletic Communications
Hurst won’t have to wait long to show he should be in that discussion. North Carolina opens the season on Thursday, Aug. 29 at No. 6 South Carolina.
More specifically, the game is being hyped as Hurst vs. Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina’s star defensive end, highlight machine and early Heisman frontrunner.
“It’s definitely going to be the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my career,” Hurst said, “but I know it has a lot of potential benefits. I’ve been doing everything I can to get ready for this game and that matchup, and I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Lindy’s Sports ranks Hurst as the third-best offensive tackle in the nation, while Athlon Sports selected him as a Third-Team All-American. While Hurst is consistently ranked in the top-5 at his position, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews often garner the most attention from pundits.
“Hurst would love to join that upper-echelon group,” wrote NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah in a recent story. “…If Hurst can pitch a shutout (against South Carolina), his stock will soar with NFL evaluators.”
He’s been big man on campus for a while
After working in the program as an assistant coach, Brian Woodard was named Plainfield’s head coach prior to the 2006 season.
There was plenty of talent on that year’s team, but Woodard knew there was going to be a special freshman coming into the program: Hurst, who at the time was 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.
He started as a freshman for the Quakers, whom went 11-1 in 2006, losing to eventual state champion Cathedral in the sectional championship.
“For a freshman to start on that team said a lot about him,” Woodard said. “You could tell that he was going to be a big kid, but also a very intelligent and high-character kid.”
The bloodlines proved to be pretty good, too. Nelson Hurst, the older brother of James, was one of the nation’s best tight ends in the Class of 2008. Their father, Tim, played football at Alabama under legendary coach Bear Bryant.
“I knew there were some good genetics there, for lack of a better phrase,” Woodard said.
James started each of his four years in high school (2006-09) as Plainfield went 36-12 during that span.
“He was a perfect for for the position, not only physically, but mentally,” Woodard said. “He’s very intelligent and can understand blocking schemes and other things that go with the position.”
Always on the field
Once Hurst decided on attending North Carolina, he knew what his next step had to be: graduate early so he could participate in the spring season.
“I did that in order to give myself a shot at early playing time,” Hurst said. “I worked hard in the spring, had a pretty good spring, had a pretty good training camp. I played pretty well and from then on it’s kind of been history.”
It didn’t take long for Hurst to find his way onto the field, doing so on the second series of UNC’s season opener at LSU in 2010. He graded out at 86 percent and had two knock-downs in that game.
“I can’t say if I arrived in the fall that I would have been in the same position as a freshman,” Hurst said. “The spring was really overwhelming, getting used to the speed and strength of the game. Having that extra semester to relax and better understand the game helped me tremendously.”
Hurst started the final 12 games of his freshman season, grading out at a team-best 83 percent and earning numerous Freshman All-American honors.
“I was really impressed with how well he played early on as a young guy,” Woodard said.
In his career, Hurst has started 36 games at North Carolina and has graded out higher each consecutive season. He graded out at 88 percent as a sophomore and 90 percent last season. The Tar Heels allowed just 11 sacks last year, fewest in the ACC and ninth nationally.
“Early on, I was trying to understand the speed of the game and learn how to read defenses and know what they’re going to do before they do it,” Hurst said. “Those are the kind of things you learn early in your career. Once you learn the game better you can focus more on technique and focus on yourself more to be the best player.”
Two consistent trends
During Hurst’s prep and collegiate career, two aspects have remained the same: playing and winning, even if it’s not been under steady conditions.
North Carolina has gone 23-15 during Hurst’s first three years at the school, playing in two bowl games. It would have been a third last season but the program was ineligible due to infractions by a previous coaching staff.
Over the past seven seasons, Hurst has made 84 starts and his teams have won 59 of those games.
The Tar Heels are eligible for the postseason once again, making it one of the top team goals.
“It was tough last season,” Hurst said. “The bowl game is kind of a reward for all of the hard work and accomplishments you’ve done in the season. A lot of guys on the team have no idea of what it’s like to go to a bowl game, so we’re going to work hard to get to one.”
Hurst is also playing for his third coach, joining the program under Butch Davis, having Everett Withers serve as an interim in 2011, before current coach Larry Fedora took over last season.
“I admire how he’s handled all of the issues North Carolina has gone through with the bowl ban and suspension of players,” Woodard said. “He and all of his teammates have had to deal with multiple coaching changes.”
Ready for the next level
Hurst put some thought into leaving early for the NFL Draft after last season, but felt the timing wasn’t right.
“It was a consideration, but at the end of the day I didn’t feel like I had my best season,” Hurst said, “and I also had a shoulder injury. Those things held me back from leaving early.”
Hurst did not play against Idaho last season – the only game he’s missed in college – due to having his leg rolled up on in the previous week. He played with the shoulder injury throughout the season.
CBSSports.com ranks Hurst as the sixth-best offensive tackle, but the 25th overall top prospect, regardless of position. A majority of early draft prognostications have Hurst being selected late in the first-round.
“It’s been a goal for me since high school to play in the NFL,” Hurst said. “It’s definitely in the back of my head and gives me more motivation to work hard…I definitely don’t go searching for (information on draft prospects) on my own, it’s not a good thing for your psyche. But with family and close friends telling me about it, some things you can’t miss.”
Woodard will definitely find time to watch the NFL Draft next spring, and will do so with pride.
“No. 1 it does make me very proud as a former coach,” Woodard said. “ It speaks highly of our program, not only the football program, but Plainfield High School for preparing James academically for the rigors of college.
“The thing that makes me most happy is that this is a kid that did things the right way. Sure he was given a lot of God-given ability, but he did things with that and did it in the right way.”
Video highlight courtesy of YouTube/draftbreakdown.com