It wasn’t that long ago - three years, actually - that James Hurst was a wide-eyed freshman set to play in his first college game. It happened that his first college game was in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic against LSU.
In the days and even hours before that game, there were questions about the personnel that Carolina would put on the field against the Tigers. Hurst couldn’t focus on who wasn’t going to play, but had to get himself ready. “I was really honestly just worried about myself, just trying to play a good game, trying to go out there and get the job done,” he said. “I was really nervous.”
As you probably know, after leading 10-7 midway through the second quarter, Carolina trailed 30-10 at halftime. A furious comeback attempt by the short-handed Heels fell just short of the goal line. “It turned out to be a great game, which was awesome to see, for us to be able to do that on such short notice of who’s playing, who’s not, all that kind of stuff. It was crazy,” Hurst said. “That game seemed like it took about 20 minutes in my mind.”
Despite the loss, Carolina took a great deal of confidence from the effort. Under the circumstances, against a team with the history and tradition of LSU, in a Georgia Dome packed with purple and gold, the Tar Heels showed tremendous resolve. “It was kind of a good measuring stick,” Hurst said. “In my mind, it was like, well if we can go out and play with LSU, and if I can go out and play against LSU and be successful, then it should be able to happen against whoever we play, so I think that was really how a lot of people on the team felt.”
Fifteen weeks later, that same Carolina team ended the season in Nashville with a victory over Tennessee in the Music City bowl.
Hurst didn’t start that LSU game, but it quickly became clear that he was ready for the college game. He’s been entrenched at left tackle ever since. Hurst’s 36 career starts are eight better than his next-closest teammate, defensive end Kareem Martin, who has 28.
Three years have passed since that date with the Tigers, although sometimes it seems longer, and sometimes it doesn’t. The Tar Heels have a very different look entering the 2013 season. Larry Fedora is in his second season employing completely new systems on offense and defense. Martin will be the only Tar Heel to have started that LSU game who will take the field against South Carolina, with Hurst, Jabari Price and Tre Boston the only other current players who faced the Tigers.
James Hurst was mentored by players like Kyle Jolly and Mike Ingersoll when he came to Carolina. He spent the bulk of his career next to Jonathan Cooper and down the line from Travis Bond and Brennan Williams. Now, in 2013, he’s the leader on the line. “I think I’ve been improving (as a leader),” he said last week. “Obviously, it was a learning process for me, but now I think that the younger guys are looking to me, and I definitely understand my responsibility as far as the leadership role. I need to know that every move I make is being watched, and they’re going to learn things from me, how I act on and off the field and all that stuff. Being a role model is a conscious decision that I’ve got to make now.”
Hurst didn’t just fall into that leadership role by default. As a two-time All-ACC player and a Freshman All-America, he has the on-field credentials that make his young teammates sit up and listen. Now, it’s up to him and Russell Bodine, returning starter at center, to groom a talented if inexperienced offensive line.
After the whistle, Carolina’s no-huddle offense requires the skill players to look to the sideline for the next play call while the linemen hustle to get set. They’ll receive the call audibly from the quarterback, but the players up front must make their own reads and communicate with each other. Hurst said the group is learning to trust one another. “Some of those younger guys start making calls, and you’ve got to trust in practice; there’s no other way you're going to get used to it. You trust that they’re making the right call, and you go back and look at the film, and it has been (the right call),” he said. “That’s been building our trust, building our confidence with each other, and I think they’ve really been doing a great job up to this point.”
Many coaches will tell you that a team makes its biggest leap from week one to week two. A team can learn from a game of live action, watch film, make adjustments and move forward. This season, just as in 2010, the Tar Heels face a tough SEC opponent in week one. On the road at South Carolina, the Tar Heels can’t simply use week one as a learning tool. “The first game is really tough if you’ve never played, with things going a thousand miles per hour, and you get to that next game and you understand, you’re prepared for it,” he said. “But we’re going to try simulating that in our scrimmages so we can skip that whole step and be ready for the first game.”
With a solid performance in Columbia, the Tar Heel offensive line can emerge a confident group. James Hurst is attempting to ensure that they enter Williams-Brice Stadium as one.
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