BBD Editor: Dan Hope
College football, and arguably its biggest star, will be back in action Thursday at 6 p.m., when superstar South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in a game televised nationally by ESPN.
The bulk of the attention leading up to this game has been placed on Clowney, and rightfully so: the junior is a virtually unanimous choice as college football’s best defensive player, is coming off of a 13-sack season and is projected to be a top-two selection in the 2014 NFL Draft.
That said, Clowney isn’t the only top prospect playing in Thursday night’s college football season opener. The second-best prospect in the game may be North Carolina left tackle James Hurst, the player Clowney will spend most of his night lining up directly across from.
Going into his senior season, Hurst is a legitimate first-round candidate for the 2014 draft. He is a very well-rounded offensive tackle with the all-around game to start on either side of the line, but to be a top draft pick in a class full of offensive tackle talent, Hurst must continue to get even better in his senior season.
Hurst starts his season with an opportunity to make a name for himself, for better or for worse. Facing Clowney will be the toughest test of his college football career, and it is likely that Hurst’s flaws will be exposed. But if Hurst can hold his own and conversely prove to be a tough test for Clowney, he will impress scouts and could vault himself into the top tier of offensive tackle prospects.
Expectations will be high for Clowney to start out the season with a big performance, but Hurst can make it a legitimate battle and intriguing matchup to watch.
How Hurst Stacks Up
Thursday night won’t be the first time James Hurst is overshadowed on the football field. Although he immediately established as a strong left tackle for UNC in his freshman season, he has dealt with the same predicament throughout the past three seasons.
The difference from 2010-12, however, was that the overshadowing was coming from his own teammate. Lining up directly next to Hurst each of the past three seasons, left guard Jonathan Cooper made a real name for himself as one of the nation’s best offensive linemen. With rare athleticism and foot skills for a guard, but also have terrific size and power, Cooper became an elite guard prospect and went No. 7 overall in the 2013 NFL draft.
Hurst could follow in Cooper’s footsteps in 2014 as a high first-round draft pick. While Cooper rightfully got the attention, Hurst quietly became one of college football’s best left tackles last season. Like Cooper, he has an outstanding combination of size, strength and athleticism, combined with a technical skill set to complete his game.
With long arms and a listed height of 6’7”, Hurst’s length stands out on the football field. His listed weight is 305 pounds is certainly adequate for an offensive tackle, and he consistently displays the physical strength to hold up against opponents in games.
Hurst’s footwork and quickness are special for an offensive tackle of his size. He may not necessarily be the most explosive player or stand out at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he moves fluidly and naturally and can cover ground well both along the line of scrimmage and upfield.
His movement skills are a major asset to his game as both a pass protector and as a run blocker.
Hurst does a terrific job of moving his feet laterally, and he excels on kick-sliding to stay in front of an edge rusher and shield the pocket.
He does a great job of syncing his lower and upper bodies, quickly moving his feet to stay in front of a defender while also keeping his shoulders aligned to mirror his opponent. When he gets his hands on an opponent, he does a great job of turning the defender outside and sustaining his block.
While Hurst will occasionally be beaten in a hand-fight with his opponent, he is overall very strong with his hands. He is consistent with his hand placement, getting his hands on the outsides of his opponent’s arms, while he has the strength and leverage to hold up against opponents rather than get backed down to the quarterback.
Hurst does his best work as a pass-blocker when he is kick-sliding around the edge, but his fluid lateral motion and his awareness are also key attributes for him in pass protection. He does a good job of knowing who is around him both in terms of blockers and defenders and deciphering when he should switch blocks to another defender. His lateral movement skills give him the ability to switch blocks without missing a beat.
Hurst has shown that he can pick up blocks against defensive tackles, whether they run a stunt to the edge from the inside, or if he is required to down-block and get an inside block on a defensive tackle. He does a good job of handling attempts by defensive ends to beat him to his inside, while he does a strong job of going low to land cut blocks.
Continue to page 2 for more on Hurst’s run blocking and matchup with Clowney.