Ravens tackle James Hurst has excelled when pressed into duty

North Carolina rookie was likely NFL draft pick before injury in senior year

September 26, 2014|By Jon Meoli | The Baltimore Sun

At every stop in his young football career, undrafted rookie James Hurst hasn't had much time to settle in before being thrust into a starting role.

In both high school and college, it turned out he was ready the moment he walked onto the field, and the Ravens are hoping the same proves true on Sunday when he starts in place of left tackle Eugene Monroe, who underwent knee surgery on Wednesday.

"I'm going to use that [knowledge] for confidence and understanding that sure, this is a bigger stage and it's a completely different opportunity, but at the same time, the experience is similar, being a young guy and being thrust in there in a position where you're playing a really good team." Hurst said. "Your team expects you to compete, and to win that game."

Hurst is slated to become the first undrafted rookie to start at left tackle in Ravens history, and the first rookie to protect quarterback Joe Flacco's blindside since Michael Oher in 2009. He'll join an offensive line whose run and pass blocking has been a strength through three games, and will have to withstand a Carolina Panthers pass rush that has produced eight sacks and 23 quarterback pressures through three weeks.

In all of his previous debuts, Hurst was up to the task for the same reason head coach John Harbaugh believes he will be on Sunday: "He has to be."

"He really prepared himself well," Harbaugh said. "I feel very confident that he's going to play very well."

The son of a Bear Bryant-coached tackle from Alabama, Hurst abandoned his passions of baseball and basketball in seventh grade to work toward a spot on the varsity line as a freshman at Plainfield (Ind.) High, located in an Indianapolis suburb of just under 30,000 people.

"He was not the 6-foot-5, 300-pound mauler he is now," coach Brian Woodard said, but he arrived as the best player for the position, and started over returning seniors.

"You're talking about a kid that's 14 years old playing against kids that are 18 or 19 years old," Woodard said. "James, to his credit, disappeared. If you're an offensive lineman and you disappear, you're forgotten, about nine times out of 10, you're playing well."

Hurst grew from that unsung role into a player college recruiting website Rivals.com dubbed the nation's No. 4 prep tackle. He chose North Carolina over offers from powerhouses including Ohio State and Florida, and spent his first spring and summer in Chapel Hill lined up against future first-round NFL draft picks Robert Quinn and Quinton Coples of the Rams and Jets, respectively.

Hurst knew he was going to play in the season opener against LSU as a freshman, but didn't know when. Coach Butch Davis benched the starter after one series and Hurst debuted at left tackle in front of 68,919 people in the Georgia Dome. He played nearly every meaningful snap for the rest of that Freshman All-American season, and his four-year career.

His handling of a scheme change from a pro-style offense to a spread when head coach Larry Fedora arrived ahead of his junior year showed Tar Heels offensive line coach-co-offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic what he had in Hurst.

"He's probably the smartest, most meticulous player I've had as far as preparation," Kapilovic said. "He was a coach as a player. We met for game plan meetings on Tuesday, and he'd been watching film Sunday and Monday, and he'd analyze it as a coach."

As a senior, fresh off a first-team all-conference honor, Hurst entered the season with designs to be an All-American. He kept Heisman hopeful Jadeveon Clowney — the eventual No. 1 overall pick out of South Carolina — at bay in the season-opener, and made a midseason All-America team, but suffered a broken leg in the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati.

The injury plunged him from early-to-mid round draft pick status to having his pick of teams to sign with in free agency. He studied depth charts, analyzed needs, and landed in Baltimore.

"He said, 'Coach, it's going to be good. I'm going to go out there, make a team and prove people wrong,' " Kapilovic said.

"The Ravens ended up getting the steal of the free agents," said North Carolina lineman Landon Turner , Hurst's former roommate.

During his first set of OTAs, Hurst got a taste of what he'll encounter this weekend when Monroe missed a week and Hurst lined up alongside left guard Kelechi Osemele with the first team. He learned their communications, and got comfortable with the starters.

When he returned to the second team, his task was just as difficult. He still had to block Terrell Suggs and company.

"Anyone will tell you that if you're going against great guys in practice, then in the game you won't have as much to worry about," Hurst said. "That's what I'm using that as."

From those experiences, Hurst solidified his belief that he might take his lumps, but his performance over the course of the game was what matters. Fellow first-year starting tackle Rick Wagner told him a short memory is necessary at their position.

"Because they are so good, they are going to win," Hurst said. "They are going to beat you, but as an offensive lineman, you have to be consistent. You might have a bad play here or there, but you've got to use those techniques and be consistent."

Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said he's seen Hurst's growth on a daily basis, and has "a lot of help" on Sunday. Rookie guard John Urschel, with whom Hurst has become close, said the way he prepared for games when he was a reserve gives him no doubt Hurst will be ready as a starter.

"[I saw] the way he was preparing for the combine, the way he prepared himself during training camp," Urschel said. "Now, during the season, he prepares himself like a starter, prepares himself like a veteran and I think everyone's going to see the results of that Sunday."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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